Analysis: The PM's skewed threat perception

The press have had a profound impact on Netanyahu's policies and his key decisions.

Netanyahu before speech 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Netanyahu before speech 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The day at the end of March that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed the Likud's ministers, he stayed in his Knesset office for nearly 18 hours non-stop as ministers came, learned their fate, and went. At 3 a.m., when the job was done, he invited in the reporters who had been waiting outside all day and pointed with pride at the computer on his desk. "I want you all to know that it's been off the entire time," he said, as had the television and the radio. Netanyahu knew that the coverage was not going to be positive, and he did not want Internet, radio or TV news report to impact his decisions. This was seen by Netanyahu's entourage as a sign that he was a changed man. No longer would he let press reports perturb him or overdose on public opinion polls. From now on, he was going to lead the country the way that he saw fit. Then again, perhaps other prime ministers did not need to turn off their computers. They could see news reports without fear of being swayed. Since then, the Internet, the radio and especially the TV have apparently stayed on in the Prime Minister's Office, and the press have had a profound impact on Netanyahu's policies and his key decisions. There are multiple examples of reports persuading Netanyahu of imminent threats against him that must be dealt with immediately when he really might have been better off had the TV been off and the newspapers undelivered. For instance, in December he caved into baseless threats from backbench MK Miri Regev and Shas regarding a proposed value added tax on fruit. One hour he was in favor of the tax, then after bad press, he changed his mind. On a slow summer news day in August, Channel 2's Amit Segal reported that Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon spoke at a political event hosted by Netanyahu critic Moshe Feiglin and criticized Peace Now. Chances are the following day's papers would not have even picked up the story had Netanyahu not immediately announced that he had summoned Ya'alon for a scolding - ending his vacation prematurely to do so. Segal later wrote on his Facebook page that he was stunned by how his own report had been blown out of proportion. Wednesday night's pro-settlement rally at the Likud's headquarters was yet another case in point. There was no reason for Netanyahu to personally call four ministers and prohibit them from coming to an event that did not pose any real threat to him. The ministers complained afterward that they felt humiliated to have to cancel at the last minute after a month of telling everyone that they were coming. That's why it would not surprise anyone if Netanyahu himself gave the order to cover up his secret trip to Russia this week. The mystery fuelled speculation that could have been averted, had Netanyahu not been too afraid of what the press would say to tell them about it in the first place. These incidents raise echoes of January 15, 1993, when Netanyahu ran to the nightly news to confess that he'd had an affair, because he received false information that his main competition in the Likud's leadership race, MK David Levy, had evidence of it. Time and time again, throughout his political career, Netanyahu has appeared to overcompensate in response to minor or nonexistent threats. This tendency must be kept in mind when considering a Shvakim Panorama poll broadcast on Israel Radio on Thursday morning that found that Netanyahu's popularity rating had risen to 65 percent. Despite his efforts to freeze settlement construction, in the Likud it's a sky-high 90%. The tables have turned and Netanyahu is doing much better in the polls than US President Barack Obama, ahead of an anticipated meeting of the two men soon in New York. Ironically, this means it will now be harder for Netanyahu to use political problems as a reason to say no to anything Obama would want him to do. But if Netanyahu does talk about imminent political threats against him, Obama should not assume that the prime minister is being economical with the truth. The president should instead understand that whether or not the computer, the radio, and the television are on, Netanyahu sometimes truly sees internal political threats that are not that serious. Yet Netanyahu and Obama will not be getting together to discuss internal politics but grave matters of war and peace. And when it comes to the external threats facing Israel, one can only hope that the prime minister correctly judges the scale of the threats, and responds accordingly.