Before they sat down in front of the cameras in television studios in Israel and abroad, numerous Israeli diplomats and politicians have sat down with Michelle Stein Teer.
A Rhetoric and Communication adviser and lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) and Bar-Ilan University, Stein Teer instructs them on how to construct soundbites — “start from the end. From your main message” — where to look, to avoid passive tense, to start with a positive message and shift to the negatives, and to ignore advice to keep their hands on the table throughout an interview.
“So they sit, and don’t move, looking like a sphinx,” she says of the figures who do heed this advice. “And if we don’t use hand gestures, our heads start doing strange things.”
Stein Teer, who can’t disclose her clients by name, says she has trained “a lot” of lawmakers and diplomats since she started at the Foreign Ministry in 2003, from all the political parties. She sighs audibly when she discusses opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who she maintains “could have received better guidance” and was advised to be “someone he isn’t.” Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir is a “tigress,” she says. And she names Likud MKs Gilad Erdan, Ofir Akunis and Gideon Sa’ar (but only when he was younger, she notes) as politicians who have taken to imitating the rhetorical flourishes of their “talented boss”: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For years, Stein Teer hosted a segment on the Knesset Channel analyzing politicians’ body language, and she’s finishing up her doctorate at Bar-Ilan University on what makes a speech effective. Speaking to The Times of Israel, Stein Teer is every bit the polished acting coach; articulate, with Julie Andrews-like diction, her hands gestures measured, her eye contact unwavering.
On Netanyahu, she describes his early-career ability to play the press, and his gradual retreat from the media, using it only on his own terms. She draws a line between Netanyahu’s props at the UN and Donald Trump’s baseball caps and delineates the discrepancy between the prime minister’s ability to sway audiences in English and Hebrew.
“Oh my God, he’s amazing in English. Amazing,” she says in English. “And in Hebrew, they don’t believe a single word that comes out of his mouth,” she adds in Hebrew.
The ‘pyrotechnics’ of diplomacy
Being an Israeli diplomat requires “pyrotechnics” and immense creativity, says Stein Teer.
“Because it’s very difficult – it always comes back to the conflict, and all the attempts to present Israel ‘beyond the conflict’ succeed to some degree, but not to the extent they would like.”
Compounding the issue is that Israeli policy is not always clear, she says, giving the example of the recent fight between Netanyahu and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon over comments by IDF deputy chief of staff Yair Golan that seemingly likened parts of Israeli society to pre-Nazi Germany. Netanyahu had condemned Golan’s remarks, while Ya’alon defended him.
“It puts the diplomats in a very difficult position. Bibi [Netanyahu] is the foreign minister [as well as the prime minister]. So what do you do?” she says. “Whose policy do you market? They have a very serious problem. They try not to answer the question.”
“Many times they say, ‘Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and it’s very good that we have different voices and different opinions.’ It’s a popular answer. But how many times can you say that? It makes you want to… ” she trails off. Vomit? “Exactly.”
Authenticity and politics
In the frequently raucous Knesset, body language — and shouting — is fairly consistent across the board, says Stein Teer.
“It doesn’t matter what side you are on the political map, your body language is the same. If I’m blaming you now, then I’m stabbing you with my finger. And then you, from your side, stab me with your finger. Or I lift my fist, or make a knife motion – and you see the politicians from both sides using the exact body language, and the same intonations and emphases.”
In her view, Herzog’s attempts to adopt a tough-guy persona in taking on Netanyahu during the last election have fallen flat.
“For Boujie, I think he could have received better guidance. They tried during the elections to make him into someone he isn’t. And we can only be someone else for a short period of time,” she says with a sigh. “Our habits are stronger than we are, so you can change them, but you have to work very hard – it isn’t enough to stand there on a podium and shout ‘upheaval, upheaval,” she says, referring to the Zionist Union’s campaign slogan.
“That doesn’t mean politicians believe everything they say. Not at all. Not at all,” she adds. “But it has to come from an authentic place.”
Stein Teer singles out Shaffir, who at 31 is the youngest parliamentarian, for her “heroism” in standing up to the other lawmakers who treat her like a “pipsqueak.” And she contends that Likud politicians like Erdan and Akunis mimic Netanyahu “because it works for him, so maybe it’ll work for them” and “if they’re being compared to Netanyahu, that’s a good thing.”
‘Everything is premeditated with Netanyahu’
Stein Teer notes two famous media anecdotes in connection with the prime minister’s relationship with the media. The first is perhaps the Israeli version of the narrative around the Nixon-Kennedy debate, in which radio listeners were purportedly swayed by Nixon, while TV viewers saw Kennedy as the clear winner. In 1996, Netanyahu faced off with Shimon Peres in a TV debate. Peres spoke to the interviewer the entire time, while Netanyahu — trained in the US by Lilyan Wilder, who also taught Oprah Winfrey — who went on to win the election, spoke to the camera.
Netanyahu was a “very good student,” she says. “Everything is premeditated” with Netanyahu, assesses Stein Teer. But at times, the “no spontaneity” can make his addresses seem “robotic,” she adds.
“He prepared, he understood that in order to do well, you need to prepare. There is no spontaneity. So in this sense he belongs to a generation of telepoliticians, which also includes Tony Blair, Bill Clinton of course, Sarkozy,” she says. “For many years, this was his [Netanyahu’s] strength. He would come to the studios, there would be the promise of high ratings. But today, he’s hiding. Because today, the media doesn’t serve him.”
Both Netanyahu and Trump demonstrate the rhetorical use of “creative intelligence,” she says, the Israeli prime minister with his props at the UN, and the US Republican candidate with his baseball caps.
The second anecdote is a story “circulating in the halls of the UN, about Danny Gillerman — that when he was appointed to be the 13th ambassador to the UN, he met with Netanyahu and told him ‘what’s the best advice you can give me,” says Stein Teer. “And Netanyahu said: I’ll give you three pieces of advice – media, media, media.”
Israelis familiar with the prime minister’s frequent harangues against the media and refusal to be interviewed by Israeli outlets may find this uncharacteristic of the prime minister. But according to Stein Teer, Netanyahu is still “playing the media” and his shift is part of a “reinvention.”
“He didn’t do interviews for years. But during the elections, at the end – blitzkrieg. Because it serves his interests,” she says.
“Even politicians who have been around for a long time need to reinvent themselves,” she adds, and during the last elections he “reinvented himself, and how.” The Arabs are voting “in droves” tactic and the skits he participated in are “a sort of reinvention of himself,” she says.
“But he does it on his territory. In his office, to the camera, to the people he’s paying to do the work as he wants it.”
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