Out There: Interview tips

"It's a recurring theme, that. Give a lecture and talk about a bunch of different issues, and someone inevitably will point out the one thing you didn’t mention."

Drawing by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Drawing by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
During a visit not long ago to the US, I gave a talk to a friendly audience about Israel’s relations with the world.
I spoke about Israel’s relations with Europe; about how Ireland and Sweden are the worst for Israel in the EU; and about how many of the countries where Jews suffered the most in Europe during the 20th century – Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia – are now paradoxically our best friends on the continent.
I talked about how ties with Russia must be seen within the perspective of Moscow no longer adopting policies in the Middle East – as the Soviets once did – out of a desire to harm us.
I discussed the current golden age in our ties with India; how relations with Japan are better than they have been for the last 67 years; and how China is more interested in learning the secrets behind the record- breaking dairy production of the Israeli cow than it is about settlement construction in Itamar.
I talked about Israel’s strong relationship with Australia; about South Africa and its romance with Hamas; and the friendly ties Israel enjoys with a number of African states, including Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Burundi and Ethiopia.
I then skipped over the ocean and discussed ties with Latin America, pointing out that no sitting Israeli prime minister has ever visited that part of the world. I spoke briefly about the negative attitudes of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador toward Israel; the less than perfect ties (an understatement) with Brazil and Argentina; and the robust military ties with Colombia.
And, of course, I spoke about relations with the US, warning against conflating a troubled relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama into a full-blown crisis in US-Israel ties.
After about a half hour of this learned dissertation, someone stood up during the question-and-answer period and asked: “Why didn’t you talk about Honduras?” “Well,” I chuckled, “because I only had 30 minutes.”
IT’S A recurring theme, that. Give a lecture and talk about a bunch of different issues, and someone inevitably will point out the one thing you didn’t mention.
If I give a talk about diplomacy, I’ll get someone irked that I didn’t mention the haredim. If I talk about the haredim, someone will complain that I didn’t talk about diplomacy.
And if that is the case when giving a lecture, it is even more the case when conducting an interview.
Ask an interviewee a dozen questions, and inevitably someone reading or listening will ask why you didn’t ask something else.
And nowhere, but nowhere, does this happen more than when interviewing the prime minister.
I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing every Israeli prime minister since 1996. I interviewed Netanyahu in 1998 during his first term, as well as Ehud Barak in 2000. I interviewed Ariel Sharon more than half a dozen times, both on and off the record; Ehud Olmert on several occasions; and Netanyahu repeatedly since he was elected again in 2009.
A couple of years ago, as I waited to be called into his office, Netanyahu looked up, saw me at the door and – poking fun at my name – greeted me with “Come in, herbal tea, come in.”
“Mr. Prime Minister,” I said. “With all due respect, sir, the world knows you as Bibi, and you’re making fun of my name?” Actually, I didn’t say it; but I thought it.
REGARDLESS OF who is prime minister, I have learned that there are three givens when interviewing the country’s leader.
The first is that no matter what you ask, your question will largely be a foil for whatever the prime minister wants to say. They all do this.
For instance, in a public interview I conducted with Netanyahu at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem earlier this month, I asked whether the recent election victory of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – and his consolidation of power – meant that Israel was writing off any chance of rescuing ties with Ankara.
Netanyahu used the question, which he answered a bit toward the end, to launch into one of his favorite subjects: the wonders of Israeli technology, and how that is what the world – including Turkey – both wants and needs.
The second given is that no matter what you ask, some folks are going to be disappointed you didn’t ask something else.
Even before the interview I received numerous suggestions about what to ask, what I have to ask, just must ask. Afterward, I was slammed by people who were incredulous that I didn’t ask about the No. 1 item on their agenda.
This incredulity stems, I believe, from a basic misunderstanding of the vehicle known as the interview.
An interview is just that, an interview. And with the prime minister it is always short. It is not a relaxed, meandering conversation between bowling buddies.
I have decidedly old-school notions about the interview.
In my view it is an effort to understand where the interviewee is coming from, what he or she is thinking about key issues. This is not a debate, nor am I there to show how smart and witty I am. I am also not a big fan of the gotcha question. That’s not the purpose.
It’s obvious that politicians are going to evade, and steer the interview into a direction most comfortable to them. It is necessary to ask follow-up questions, to press them, but that must be done with decorum and respect.
After all, you are speaking to the prime minister.
And the third given is that no matter what I do or say, my youngest son, now 19, will be unimpressed and hypercritical.
After he watched a video of my interview with Netanyahu, I harbored secret hopes that he would finally be just a little impressed by something his decidedly uncool, anti-hip, very American, very Ashkenazi father had done. I thought he might shep some naches (take a little pride).
I was disappointed.
“You sounded nervous,” he said, adding that I leaned forward in my seat and looked slumped over, while Netanyahu was sitting back in his chair appearing comfortable and relaxed. “How come you leaned forward, while he was sitting comfortably?” he asked.
“I sounded nervous because it’s a nerve-inducing experience interviewing the prime minister in front of an audience of 500 people,” I said, defensively. I also reminded him that he, like me, even gets tense before being called up in the synagogue to recite the blessing over the Torah.
As for his critique of my posture, I took the high road and just ignored it. Until the very next day, when I laced into him for dragging his feet when he walks.
That’ll teach him to critique his father, I thought.
His response was to say how proud he was when a friend said he saw a clip of the Netanyahu interview on the nightly news.
“Go ahead and drag your feet, son,” I replied. “What does it really matter?”
A collection of the writer’s “Out There” columns, French Fries in Pita, is available at www.herbkeinon.