Israel Elections: Netanyahu interview highlights campaign skill - analysis

It was a command Netanyahu performance and goes a long way toward explaining Netanyahu’s remarkable political longevity in a country that likes to chew up and spit out political leaders.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking at a Clalit vaccination center in Zarzir, on February 9, 2021. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking at a Clalit vaccination center in Zarzir, on February 9, 2021.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first became Prime Minister in 1996, his colleagues around the world included Bill Clinton in the US, Jean Chretien in Canada, Carlos Menem in Argentina, John Major in Britain, Jacques Chirac in France, Helmut Kohl in Germany, Boris Yeltsin in Russia, John Howard in Australia, Jiang Zemin in China, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Iran, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and King Hussein in Jordan.
Some of those colleagues have passed away, others were voted out or turned out of office because of term limits. But when looking at the overall 1996 class of world leaders, one could be excused for asking how it is possible that Netanyahu is still a dominant figure on the world stage a quarter century later, while the rest have faded away.
To answer that, one need look no further than the Channel 12 interview Netanyahu gave to Yonit Levi on Monday evening. It was a command performance, and goes a long way toward explaining Netanyahu’s remarkable political longevity in a country that likes to chew up and spit out political leaders.
Netanyahu is no fan of the media, and much of the media is no fan of Netanyahu, which explains his overall reticence over the last five years to give interviews to the Israeli press. Except during campaigns. During campaigns he interviews — a lot. And since Israel has had a lot of campaigns over the last two years, that amounts to a not insignificant number of interviews.
The prime minister’s interview blitz — television, radio and print — generally starts later in the campaign, peaking around the weekend before the election. This time, however, it began earlier, with Netanyahu interviewing already last week with Channel 20 – which, to borrow sports terminology, would be a “home game” to a friendly crowd — and continuing on Monday with Channel 12, which would definitely constitute an “away game.”
Why the early start? Because the coronavirus is depriving Netanyahu of his favorite venue: Likud rallies. Prior to the last election he crisscrossed the country, holding two and three campaign rallies a night. That will be impossible this time, so to compensate he will need to give more interviews, earlier, in order to get his message across.
Nowhere in the 32-minute interview did Netanyahu’s skill at campaigning and messaging come out better than when asked about the much-discussed lack of a phone call yet from US President Joe Biden.
On the surface, the fact that the new leader of Israel’s most important friend in the world has not yet called – even though Netanyahu’s predecessors received calls from new US presidents within days of the elections, and even though Biden has called over a dozen world leaders, including all of Washington’s closest allies – would seem to be a campaign liability.
“Sir, why doesn’t Joe Biden call you?” Levi asked. “Doesn’t it bother you that he hasn’t called after so much time? Doesn’t that signify something?”
Predictably, Netanyahu said that he was not concerned, that he and Biden go back 40 years, and that they will speak. And then he presented the liability as an asset.
“We have many things we agree on, and the alliance is very strong,” he said. “But there are also disagreements – on Iran, on the Palestinian issue. I think that what Israeli citizens have to ask themselves is that in the contest between me and [Yesh Atid head Yair] Lapid, who will know how to stand up for Israel’s interests, me or Lapid?”
Netanyahu said that he works with both Republicans and Democrats, and what is important for him is not the president’s party, but the policies. “Those who support our policies, I am with. And anyone who endangers us — like Iran, which is an existential threat — I will oppose, and it doesn’t matter if it is a Democrat or Republican.”
In other words, Netanyahu turned the non-call from a sign that Israel is losing elevation with the new administration, to a message to the electorate that Israel needs a leader and is able to stand up to an administration that may adopt policies inimical to Israel’s interests.
After not calling Netanyahu for nearly a month, Biden is definitely sending Netanyahu and Israel a message. Biden might want the message to the Israeli public to be: “Put into office someone I can work well with.”
Netanyahu, however, is filtering the Biden message for the Israeli public, hoping that they hear this instead: “Precisely because there has been no call, precisely because there are disagreements over the Palestinians and Iran — especially Iran — you need me to stand up even to the US and to stand firm concerning Israel’s existential interests.”
Throughout the interview, Netanyahu tried to set up Lapid as his foil, saying in the very beginning that it was a choice between him and Lapid, and ignoring the two other candidates who view themselves as prime ministerial timber — New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar and Yamina’s Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu paid them little heed in the interview, but kept returning to Lapid, because this is his most comfortable target, someone he is trying to portray as a lightweight who will form a government with the Left.
“Let’s look at the last few weeks,” Netanyahu said. “I brought millions of vaccines that are amazing the world, I brought four peace agreements which are also amazing the world, I am standing strong against Iran and we are hitting their proxies all over the region, and I am focusing on the economy… all of that I am doing in a few weeks. I can tell you humbly, what I am able to do in an hour, Yair Lapid, my opponent, cannot do in a lifetime.”
Netanyahu said all this with complete confidence, not knocked off kilter by the questions, looking cool, in control, not a leader on the defensive. That, too, is one of Netanyahu’s unique political skills and a secret to his longevity: the ability to come across – even while under immense pressure, strain and stress — as measured and in control.
And the corruption trial, what about the trial?
Here, too, Netanyahu adroitly dodged a question about whether he would — if elected — push forward the “French Law” in the next Knesset that might make it impossible to prosecute a sitting prime minister. Instead of answering head on, he replied by saying that “everyone” knows that the cases against him are falling apart, and that he will not have to deal with the “French Law’’ question because there will be no conviction. This was a variation on a theme that he started singing five years ago when the investigations started: “There will be nothing, because there is nothing.”
On this, at least, the prime minister is nothing if not consistent. Yes, he is also something else: a master campaigner. Which is why 25 years after first becoming prime minister, he’s still here, while most of the rest of the leaders of the world and of Israel at that time, are all gone.