It is not every day that the prime minister gives a radio interview, at least it hasn’t been for years.
Once upon a time, it was the norm.
Benjamin Netanyahu, when he was prime minister the first time around from 1996 to 1999, used to interview on the radio all the time, as did Ehud Barak during his brief stint in the job from 1999-2001. Ariel Sharon put an end to this practice: no longer was the prime minister a regular guest on the morning news shows like any other politician or pundit.
Sharon believed that over-familiarity – the type of over-familiarity of the prime minister being interviewed every Monday and Thursday on the radio or in television studios – breeds contempt. He believed this detracted from the gravitas of his office, hurt Netanyahu and Barak, and he was determined not to repeat that mistake.
It is not every day, either, that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gives an interview, period.
He has been in the office now for just over six months, and has only given a handful. He gave an interview to The New York Times in August before he met with US President Joe Biden in the White House, and he did a round of interviews with the television stations and Internet outlets in mid-September after his meeting in Egypt with President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. He does take questions from reporters at occasional news conferences.
On Tuesday, however, he gave two morning radio interviews, one on Army Radio and the other on Kan Bet. A few hours later, he gave a briefing of more than an hour to diplomatic correspondents.
Which raises two questions: Why – what happened to prompt this media blitz? And what message was he trying to convey?
Regarding the why: the nation – as Bennett has said repeatedly – is on the cusp of an unprecedented wave of Omicron infections. His media blitz was a preemptive action: he wanted to let people know what was coming down the chute, and convey a sense that he – the government – has things under control. The conflicting directives and confusing regulations might not make it seem that way, but Bennett attempted to assure Israelis that with the vaccines and some good common sense on their part, the country can ride this coming wave.
Bennett’s tone during the interviews was calm – even when he was asked difficult questions such as why his wife took his kids abroad when he advised the country to stay home, or whether it is true that US President Joe Biden doesn’t take his phone calls. He spoke in a monotone, never raising his voice, never sounding ruffled. This is a tone he has adopted since becoming prime minister – except for certain moments in the Knesset – and one at odds with a more fiery approach he often took in his previous roles.
But while the tone was calm, his message wasn’t calming – at least not when it comes to Omicron or even Iran. The Omicron will infect scores, and there is no guarantee regarding Iran. But his message to the public was: “We got this.”
On Omicron, the message was that the government has provided the country’s citizens the tools to deal with it. In his interview on Kan Bet he called the vaccines a protective vest, and said it is now everyone’s own responsibility to put on that vest. And on Iran, he did not deny differences with the US administration, but said that he knows how to handle those differences, and is doing so quietly, not looking for gratuitous confrontations.
Not looking for fights was a theme that permeated these interviews: not looking for big fights with the US administration, or small political ones within his government. Not because he is averse to confrontation, but rather because confrontation for the sake of confrontation does nothing, and just diverts attention from the bigger picture.
“Look, I can tell you we have very good relations with the US administration,” he said on Kan Bet, adding this does not mean that there aren’t disagreements. But in dealing with these disagreements there are two approaches. “There is the approach of our predecessor, of the Likudniks – at least recently, but not always – a stinging approach, looking to fight. My approach is a quieter one, one that looks for results.”
Bennett said he brings that same approach to the differences that crop up inside the government.
“The question is what we focus on,” Bennett said. “Do we focus on high housing prices that are a result of not building enough here in the last decade, or do we fight? Do we choose to focus on improving the public transportation that was neglected, and deal with Arab crime that was neglected and blew up during Operation Guardian of the Walls campaign? Do we do things, or do we quarrel?
“I prefer doing, and I think Israel’s citizens very much want this calm and normal approach that hasn’t been seen here for years.”
Or at least that is what he endeavored on Tuesday morning to convince them that they want.