Israeli journalists have been up in arms lately. That may be an evergreen statement; after all, journalists are, by nature, a prickly bunch, always looking for what’s wrong in any given situation.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest media blitz seems to have really irritated the Hebrew-language media. Israeli reporters are used to Netanyahu giving almost no interviews normally, and then speaking to many news outlets right before an election. Now, he is giving a plethora of interviews, but only in English.
Citing remarks by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer that judicial reform is a “domestic Israeli matter,” Walla political correspondent Tal Shalev, who writes a column in this paper, tweeted: “I’m just asking: If it’s a domestic Israeli matter, why are they only giving interviews about it abroad?”
Journalist Rina Matzliah said on Army Radio yesterday morning: “He gives interviews to the foreign media, in a language that most of his supporters don’t understand well… and the video of his achievements starts with him lashing out at the local media. It’s incredibly insulting!”
Yediot Aharonot’s diplomatic correspondent, Itamar Eichner, compared Netanyahu’s snub of most Israeli news outlets to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, saying that while Israel combats boycotts, the prime minister is engaged in his own boycott of Israelis.
Eichner’s comment was made on Yediot’s “The Headline” podcast, which counted 22 interviews by Netanyahu to the foreign press and only four to Israeli outlets.
The Jerusalem Post was one of those four in June. Although the Post is an Israeli outlet, it is, in a sense, the exception that proves the rule: Yes, it’s Israeli, but it’s published in English, and most of its audience, which reads the news online, is outside of Israel.
Netanyahu complained at length about the “monopolistic stranglehold on information and opinion” by “just two left-leaning nightly news channels” in Israel in his memoirs, Bibi: My Story, published last year.
“The dominant media oligarchy… see[s] it as their mission to pull public opinion to the left,” Netanyahu wrote. “Thus, when a left-leaning government wins an election, they celebrate. When a Likud government wins, they can hardly hide their chagrin. Many in the leftist media elite flatly reject the democratic choice of Israeli voters. Nearly half a century after Likud’s first victory, they still viewed it as a usurpation of their natural and privileged monopoly on power.”
Netanyahu sees himself as the target of “an obsessive campaign that escalated as the press failed to block my many victories in democratic elections,” and called the media his “most potent opponent” and “the main opposition party.”
Netanyahu sees himself as an expert in American media
At the same time, Netanyahu famously views himself as an expert in the American media. He wrote extensively about his experiences defending Israel on TV when he was deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and as ambassador to the UN, and his recent choices show that he still feels most comfortable on the American airwaves.
The 22 foreign news outlets with whom Netanyahu spoke are almost all American – Sky News being the exception – but are varied in their politics and focus. Just in the last few weeks, he spoke with his favorite Fox News host Mark Levin, and has also appeared on NBC, Bloomberg, ABC’s Good Morning America, and on the show of popular podcaster Lex Friedman, who got over an hour out of the prime minister’s busy schedule. All of the interviews, even with print outlets such as The Jerusalem Post and The Wall Street Journal, were filmed with video posted online.
Nearly every interview then became a headline in Israel. This week, it was Netanyahu telling Bloomberg that his coalition will pursue a change in the judicial selection committee’s makeup, but not take any further steps to alter the judiciary. Critics said that had the prime minister been willing to subject himself to an Israeli interviewer, he or she would have pointed out that altering the committee is one of the central tenets of the reform plan, and not allow him to present it as something small.
This state of affairs demonstrates another reason why Netanyahu is reticent to talk to the local media. They translate and write up almost everything he says in English anyway, so why bother giving an interview in Hebrew, where Netanyahu may have to face tough follow-up questions on domestic affairs from reporters who can see through the political spin?
TWO EXPERTS on Netanyahu and the media – Moshe Klughaft, a strategic adviser who has worked for Netanyahu and former prime minister Naftali Bennett; and Akiva Bigman, cofounder of the opinion journal Mida, who is a right-wing media fixture and the author of the Hebrew book How Netanyahu Turned Israel into an Empire – weighed in on the way the prime minister has chosen to convey his messages.
According to Klughaft, Netanyahu’s “interviews in English are an improved version of his old interviews on social media. Netanyahu used to only speak to social media, but then he saw the Israeli media was no longer covering it and the public’s involvement went down.”
Now, Klughaft explained, Netanyahu has turned to the international media, because “the Israeli media covers it; it impresses the public, and it automatically makes the viewer feel that he is representing the country and not that he is a representative of the Right dealing with media from the other side.”
Even though Netanyahu has been giving interviews in English for four decades, his sheen has not worn off, Klughaft argued.
The adviser pointed out that recent speeches and meetings in English, filmed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, went over very badly. Netanyahu also has better English than his main rivals, opposition leader Yair Lapid and National Unity leader Benny Gantz.
Asked if Netanyahu should be giving interviews in Hebrew as a matter of democratic values, to make his positions and information available in the language that his voters speak, Klughaft said: “There are no questions of values in media management. It’s about utility.
“Netanyahu will give interviews to the Israeli media when he feels that it helps him. No one will be impressed by a problematic interview because he made the principled choice. In other words: As long as there is [domestic] exposure for Netanyahu’s interviews in English, he won’t change languages,” Klughaft said.
As for the sheer number of interviews, Klughaft said Netanyahu is doing it “so we talk about it. And here we are talking.”
Bigman noted Netanyahu’s “total lack of trust in the mainstream media in Israel for many years,” has gone so far that it is the basis of some of the criminal proceedings against the prime minister. When Netanyahu does speak to Israeli media, it’s to outlets on the Right, like Channel 14, a practice that precedes the judicial reform, he pointed out.
Netanyahu also wants to defend Israel’s image in the world, which has been damaged by the heated debate over judicial reform.
“He cares a lot about international opinion and sees that there has been damage to international opinion about Israel – not only damage to himself and his government politically,” Bigman said. “He wants to fix it. He knows that he has a strong standing abroad and wants to take advantage of it to improve Israel’s image and the damage that is done.”
The interview with Bloomberg, for example, was interpreted both by the financial media outlet and by Israeli media as an attempt to calm the markets.
Bigman also argued that the American media treats Netanyahu better. “They let his messages be heard even if they are not so supportive of him. They give him a fair platform that he hasn’t gotten in the Israeli mainstream for many years. In the US, he gives interviews live and they don’t interrupt him so much, so he can convey his messages the way he wants.”
The interviews in English play well with the right-wing base, Bigman said.
“The people who support Netanyahu and the judicial reform feel like they’re under attack,” he said. “They’re accused of being dumb and primitive, but then they see a well-spoken version of their argument, in English. It encourages them to continue to support him.”
At the same time, the interviews “won’t convince anyone to change sides,” Bigman added. “In politics today, you have no chance in persuading the opposing camp.”