Trusting his persuasive powers, Netanyahu takes a gamble by crying wolf

Seeking public support to counter his legal troubles, the PM oversold a decidedly ho-hum statement in a bid for prime time TV exposure; next time the media may not bite

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A man watches Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech on television screens at a shop in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2009. (AP/Bernat Armangue/File)
Illustrative: A man watches Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech on television screens at a shop in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2009. (AP/Bernat Armangue/File)

To speak. To expatiate, convince, persuade, to use the power of the spoken word to win over your audience — that is not only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest talent, it is also how he usually tackles challenges, both in policymaking and politicking.

That’s why he insisted on delivering a combative address to the joint session of Congress that was critical of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, against the explicit wishes of the American president. That is why he insists on flying to New York every September for the televised, but actually mostly irrelevant, UN General Assembly.

And that is also why he demanded, during Monday evening’s ostensibly “dramatic” statement on the criminal investigations against him, to be confronted by his accusers — on live television.

Confident in his rhetorical skills, the prime minister possibly believes that such a debate broadcast to millions of voters could sway public opinion so much in his favor that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit would be left with no choice but to drop the case, or at least delay his announcement of an indictment until after the election.

An old fox in Israeli politics if there ever was one, Netanyahu must know that the legal authorities handling the three corruption probes against him — especially someone as highly regarded as Mandelblit — will not be swayed by Netanyahu’s pleas, as articulately as they may have been worded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a statement live at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, on January 7, 2019. (frame grab off video, releaed by the Likud/AFP)

But the attorney general’s office was also not his intended audience. Rather, the prime minister was surely wishing to influence the Israeli electorate at large.

Even if Mandelblit went ahead and announced his intention to indict the prime minister before the April 9 election, Netanyahu probably hopes that a good result — a strengthened mandate from the public — would help him remain in power even after the indictment was served. (He would not have to resign until an indictment is finally served, after a hearing process, and there is legal dispute over whether he would have to step down even after that, or could wait until the completion of the trial process, through to any conviction and even the exhaustion of the appeals process.)

Netanyahu’s faith in the persuasive power of his eloquence may also explain why his aides promised a “dramatic announcement,” causing much of the country to hold its collective breath and to make sure to tune in to the 8 p.m. news to watch his statement.

He simply wanted to make sure that his speech — in which he not only pleaded innocence, but also attacked the ostensibly skewed investigation and tried to incriminate Yair Lapid, one of his key political rivals — got maximum exposure. The more people listen to him make his case, the more will walk away with the impression that he is right.

But in putting the country on high alert over a “dramatic announcement” that turned out to be anything but dramatic, Netanyahu undertook a dangerous gamble. The next time the prime minister-who-cried-wolf wants to address the nation to announce a mysterious matter of purported national urgency, fewer people may pay attention.

On Monday evening, all Israeli television channels carried Netanyahu’s seven-minute speech live. One of them, Channel 10, cut away after less than four-and-a-half minutes, having realized Netanyahu tricked it into providing him a free prime-time platform to spread his version of the truth.

As the attorney general’s likely decision about an indictment comes closer, other networks, too, may be less inclined to put their airwaves at his disposal.

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