ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Op-ed

After blowing up ties with the media, Netanyahu now fears taking questions in wartime

The prime minister won’t interact with his nation’s media, and by extension with the Israeli people, even at this dark hour

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised address to the nation on October 13, 2023. (Screenshot/ used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised address to the nation on October 13, 2023. (Screenshot/ used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The last time that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat in an Israeli television studio for an interview was April 13, 2023.

The interview, which aired on the firmly pro-Netanyahu Channel 14, had the benign atmosphere of a group of friends chatting. The “interviewers” were the same people who sang Netanyahu’s praises in the run-up to November’s election.

What’s certain is that the Israeli public did not receive any important information from the broadcast, only some slogans about the so-called anti-Netanyahu propaganda airing on Israel’s mainstream Channels 11, 12 and 13, which, according to the prime minister, were obscuring the truth about his greatness from the public.

At the start of the conversation with his friend/fan Yinon Magal, Netanyahu accused the very channel he was being interviewed by of insufficiently covering his successes.

“If you listen to the media outlets, including this studio, the things we achieve are not covered. Why? Because they mainly cover the [anti-judicial overhaul] demonstrations. I’ve made a list of all the things that the press doesn’t show you.”

We’ve known for years that Netanyahu’s appetite for positive coverage is insatiable. He hasn’t spoken to local outlets, not even Channel 14, after that appearance in April. He has given over 20 interviews since then to English-language channels abroad. But he doesn’t take questions in Hebrew.

He is a prime minister on trial for corruption and a huge portion of the public has lost faith in him, but he doesn’t converse with his people in their language. And since the murderous attack by Hamas on Israel 15 days ago, with over 1,400 people slaughtered, he has not presented himself for any questioning by the media. Even in this darkest hour, with Israel plunged into war by the Hamas onslaught across a border our political and military leadership failed to protect, Netanyahu has not consented to any kind of interview or serious interaction with the Israeli media and, by extension, the public.

He has published a few videos — and caused mass panic when he delivered a video message on a Friday night, a very rare occurrence on the Sabbath. At the time, people thought he had something important to say, six days into the war, but all he wanted to do was improve his image after realizing that US President Joe Biden had already met with families of the hostages. And, even then, Netanyahu barely addressed the issue.

“I spoke today with some of the families who have lost their loved ones, or who do not know their fate. Their worlds have fallen apart,” he said during the broadcast — the first time a prime minister had addressed the nation on Shabbat since 1994. This was the only new fact he shared, at the end of another day of fighting on the Gaza border.

For years, Netanyahu has been claiming in private conversations — and his supporters and spokespeople echo his words with unquestioning loyalty — that the reason he doesn’t do interviews is that Israeli interviewers treat him with disrespect. This claim is utter nonsense.

Israeli journalists interviewing Netanyahu have always asked pointed questions, have never done so disrespectfully, and have been prepared to follow directions issued by his office.

For example, they interviewed the prime minister in locations that were convenient for him, despite the fact that during the last five rounds of elections, he was supposed to be interviewed under the same conditions as any other candidate. But he was accorded more respect, the kind reserved for heads of government.

The interviewers let him deviate from their questions, give cliché-laden answers, preach at them, and mainly, they allowed him to go on media blitzes for the week prior to each election, despite the fact that he had been belittling them for years.

Netanyahu never once gave the media the same respect they gave him.

Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Channel 14 conference in Jerusalem, October 23, 2022. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

The last time Netanyahu agreed to be interviewed on Kan, Israel’s state broadcaster, was on September 14, 2019 — over four years ago.

He was last interviewed on channels 12 and 13 on March 20, 2021, over two and a half years ago. Subsequently, he granted countless interviews to Channel 14 — a channel aimed squarely at the Netanyahu-supporting right-wing Israel public.

Now, during a war, he is shaking in his boots at the idea of talking to the press. The man who wrecked his relationship with journalists across Israeli media is unable to hold a press conference or even give an interview while the country he leads is at war.

In the same hour-long conversation with Channel 14 on April 13, Netanyahu repeated many tired clichés: “I say to our enemies, you will not harm us. The people of Israel are alive, strong, and victorious. And now I’ll answer your question, Yinon. Where would you like to start? The economy?”

Instead, Magal asked him about an assessment made by Israel’s intelligence agencies in which they determined there to be a growing risk of war, and asked him if it was a credible threat. And Netanyahu answered him with his characteristic smugness: “I think the claim is exaggerated, but we’re always prepared for this possibility. We are preparing for threats in every direction.

“We hit the Iranians, struck Syria, and in Lebanon we attacked Hamas and Hezbollah targets. Hamas will not open another front,” he continued.

Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference organized by Channel 14 in Jerusalem, October 23, 2022. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

The interview continued in the same vein: The media doesn’t praise him enough; he, the self-proclaimed Mr. Security, is operating on all fronts (hollow words that mean nothing, as we’ve learned in retrospect); and the media is creating unnecessary panic on the issue of judicial overhaul.

Only one answer given by Netanyahu that day has turned out to be accurate.

“If our enemies think that this internal debate will prevent the public from presenting a united front [in the face of danger], they are mistaken. They may be tempted to attack us, because they think Israel is collapsing. But we are a strong people in a strong country,” Netanyahu said, in an accurate prediction of the sheer number of reservists and volunteers who would come together in the face of war.

The price of destroyed media relations

As mentioned, Netanyahu has been claiming for years that he does not talk to the Israeli media because of supposed disrespect and blunt questions. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t be reason enough for the leader of a democratic country to ignore the media. Dialogue with the public is a central principle of democracy.

Just as Netanyahu trampled on public services, allowed unrestrained firebrands into his cabinet, distorted the entire structure of government, and attacked the judiciary, so too he distorted the relationship between the elected leader and the press.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits down with Channel 14’s “The Patriots,” on April 13, 2023. (Channel 14 screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

All the prime ministers who came before him — Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon, and Shimon Peres — were criticized by the media. So what? That didn’t stop them from continuing to consent to interviews and holding press conferences.

So where are we now? During an all-out war, Netanyahu is afraid to speak and has no journalists (with the exception of a group of Channel 14 bootlickers) with whom he has maintained any sort of relationship.

He’s called [Hebrew link] the heads of channels 12, 13 and Yedioth Ahronoth in distress, begging fervently that they stop slandering him live on air or wait for six months after the end of the war before crucifying him, because he argues that such criticism hurts national morale.

If he had maintained any kind of reasonable working relationship with commentators, journalists and reporters over the last 14 years, he might have had a chance. But he’s lost the trust of most of them — and in this time of emergency, public outrage has spilled over.

Is there a single democratic country in the world with a leader who doesn’t hold press conferences in the country’s native tongue for years on end, who doesn’t allow interviews, and who doesn’t answer questions? Having ignored the fundamentals of public discourse, in this area, along with many others, Netanyahu is an overwhelming failure.

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