This week was a low point for relations between the press and politicians. No, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t trash reporters on his Facebook page and the Likud didn’t put up another billboard with journalists’ faces on it and the text “They won’t decide.” Instead, it was a week that proved Oscar Wilde’s point: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
This was a week in which Netanyahu and Israel Resilience Party leader Benny Gantz, who hopes to be the next prime minister, decided that they don’t need to talk to journalists at all. They decided that they only want to be tossed softballs instead of answering tough questions about their records and their plans for Israel’s future.
Gantz granted an interview to Yediot Aharonot, but to singer Shlomo Arzi and stand-up comedian Hanoch Daum. He didn’t speak to actual reporters who would ask hard-hitting questions about controversies during his time as IDF chief of staff, including the accusation in a State Comptroller’s Report that he did not think Hamas would use the tunnels it dug from Gaza during the war in 2014.
The new politician stumbled over his own words anyway, in a preview of the article that was released. He seemed to advocate a continuation of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, although this time from the West Bank. The Right pounced, leading Gantz to release a clarification claiming that he actually opposes further unilateral withdrawals.
Daum has been a satirist for years who has managed to put politicians in awkward positions. But an experienced journalist and skilled interviewer may have been able to pin Gantz down to an actual opinion or a side in a debate, giving people a better idea of where the mysterious and mostly-silent prime ministerial hopeful stands.
Of course, Gantz didn’t get the idea that he can be vague and avoid journalists from nowhere. It’s Netanyahu who has elevated that into an art form.
Netanyahu rarely gives press conferences or interviews. Most of his weekly statements to the press at the openings of cabinet meetings and in the Knesset end with his spokesman saying “thank you, media” – a signal that journalists should leave the room because Netanyahu won’t be saying anything else.
Sometimes a reporter shouts out a question and Netanyahu deigns to answer it. The prime minister has very rarely given sit-down interviews to Israeli journalists in the past six years of his tenure in office, except for shortly before the 2015 election, when he went on a media blitz. He is slightly more amenable to talking to journalists who join him on trips abroad, although usually only for off-the-record conversations.
Now that we’re in an election season, Netanyahu has been shooting almost-daily accusations at the press for being unfair to him in the coverage of the corruption allegations against him. It’s fine for him to defend himself and point to cases of unfairness, but he is seeking to undermine the entire institution of the press, which is essential to a working democracy.
And now he has launched his own webcast, LikudTV, hosted by talk show host and reality-show celebrity Eliraz Sadeh. The first episode basically consisted of Sadeh throwing out Likud talking points in question form, so Netanyahu could stick to easy topics and express outrage at his opponents.
Some have made comparisons between the webcast and news channels in dictatorships. Those are unfair because there are still a myriad of media outlets that are able to be critical without fear of punishment from the government. Free speech is not under threat in Israel.
But it is fair to say that Netanyahu and Gantz are doing a disservice to the public by taking the easy way out and avoiding having to answer questions that may be uncomfortable for them. Voters deserve to know where their current and potential leaders stand, how they plan to address problems in the future, and whether they have learned not to repeat their past failings.
In a democracy, transparency is essential, and leaders should respect the citizens of Israel by being open to answering questions. We don’t need to watch and read about politicians facing interviewers who will let them get away with saying only what they want.