Analysis'Blue and White has no interest in answering Bardugo'

‘We are vilified’: Echoing Netanyahu, Gantz goes on attack against media critic

The Blue and White leader’s developing (non-)relationship with the press is starting to resemble that of the prime minister he seeks to replace

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Benny Gantz, head of the Israel Resilience party, speaks at a conference presenting the party's list of candidates for coming Knesset elections at an event held in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, head of the Israel Resilience party, speaks at a conference presenting the party's list of candidates for coming Knesset elections at an event held in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Benny Gantz has built his surging bid to be Israel’s next prime minister on a promise that he will be different from its current one.

“Blue and White will be Israel’s new and different ruling party,” he told newly recruited activists as he introduced the unified slate of his Israel Resilience party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid last month.

“There is a different leadership in Israel,” he said last week in a televised response to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement that he plans to bring charges, pending a hearing, against the man Gantz seeks to unseat as premier, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gantz, whose Blue and White party is ahead of Likud in the polls, and whose personal popularity as a potential prime minister is rivaling Netanyahu’s in some surveys, has repeatedly slammed Netanyahu for his “divide and rule” method of governing the country and his attacks against state institutions involved in the criminal investigations against him. But at the same time, the Blue and White leader’s developing relationship with another institution targeted by Netanyahu — the press — may be starting to resemble that of the very man he says must be replaced.

Benny Gantz gives a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, February 28, 2019 (Flash90)

In the loudest echo of Netanyahu’s acerbic relationship with the media, Gantz’s party on Tuesday released a bitter attack on a radio host, Yakov Bardugo, who has repeatedly aired vehemently critical views of the former IDF chief of staff.

“Every evening we are vilified by Army Radio commentator Bardugo, and this is our response to another false accusation that was raised today in his broadcast: Blue and White has no interest in answering Bardugo’s questions or going on his program, just as we do not go on programs in North Korea. Bardugo, Netanyahu’s representative at Army Radio, uses public air time to serve his master,” Blue and White tweeted, in response to a series of claims made by the veteran broadcaster during a radio show he hosted Tuesday afternoon, as well as criticism he voiced of Gantz for refusing to be interviewed on the show.

Yakov Bardugo (left) and co-presenter Yaron Vilensky (Army Radio)

To be clear, former Israel Lottery head (appointed incidentally by Netanyahu) and one-time right-wing Knesset candidate Bardugo would fall drastically short of the BBC’s requirement for “impartiality” among its broadcast journalists. A combative and at-times cantankerous interviewer, he is known as both a bellicose critic of Israel’s left wing and an ardent supporter of Netanyahu.

Having relentlessly attacked Gantz since he entered the political arena two months ago, Bardugo opened Tuesday’s drive-time afternoon show on Army Radio with a series of fresh broadsides against Netanyahu’s chief challenger in the upcoming April elections, including a number of dubious and false claims previously made by, yes, the prime minister.

First accusing Gantz of trying to “manipulate the public” by “pretending to be mainstream,” Bardugo then described him as the “instigator of Mandelblit’s all-out war on Netanyahu,” before questioning his military achievements and incorrectly claiming he had been in charge of the IDF’s Northern Command during the 2006 Lebanon War in which Israel 121 soldiers were killed “on his watch.” And that was just the introduction to the 25-minute interview he and co-host Illil Shachar conducted with Netanyahu acolyte Culture Minister Miri Regev in which she, almost completely unchallenged, further besmirched Gantz.

Still, in its hostile attack on Bardugo, Blue and White’s response revealed the kind of contempt for detractors in the press that has been a much-criticized trademark of Netanyahu’s.

Over the past two decades, Netanyahu has repeatedly tried to curb his many detractors in the mainstream media, which he considers biased against him. He has kept questioning at press conferences and interviews with Israeli journalists to a minimum, and has publicly called out specific stories or media outlets for stories he disliked.

His famously combative relationship with the media has soured even further over the past two years, as police have pursued three criminal cases against him.  Accusing the press of leading “witch hunts” against him — along with the opposition, then the police, and most recently the state prosecution  — he has dismissed specific journalists as biased and untrustworthy and denounced critical stories about him as “fake news.” Two of the three corruption cases against Netanyahu revolve around his alleged efforts to secure more favorable coverage — in the nation’s most resonant news empire, Yedioth Ahronoth, and at one of Israel’s largest news sites, Walla.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister office in Jerusalem on March 14, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In its tweet about Bardugo, Gantz’s Blue and White party employed many of the methods championed by Netanyahu: personal attacks, cries of victimhood, labeling accusations as fake, and, notably, refusing to challenge the claims in an interview. Even releasing the statement via the party’s Twitter account, as opposed to Gantz’s, mirrored the prime minister’s use of Likud and “Likud sources” to dish dirt on rivals while retaining a degree of distance and deniability.

The assertion that Gantz would not go on the show, “just as we do go not go on programs in North Korea,” highlighted another similarity to Netanyahu — the soft-spoken former general’s almost complete refusal to face questions from journalists in the weeks since he entered the campaign. Indeed, Israeli newsrooms have seen almost as much of him as have the state-run media outlets of the Democratic People’s Republic.

In his single interview since joining the race in January, Gantz was questioned not by seasoned political reporters but by the curiously paired Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi and right-wing columnist and comedian Hanoch Daum. The 7,000-word free-flowing back-and-forth in Yedioth Ahronoth did indeed cover a vast range of topics relating to almost every realm of Israeli public discourse, but it was notably light on policy proposals as Gantz kept his cards close to his chest on many thorny issues.

Since then, Gantz has declined any further questioning, either in an interview format or via a press conference. When faced with serious press queries about Gantz’s positions, Blue and White, while always responding quickly and courteously, has deflected, declined to comment, or referred questions to others in the party who do speak to the press, including co-leader Lapid of Yesh Atid.

Hitting back at the Blue and White statement in an on-air response, Bardugo presented his most devastating critique of Gantz yet.

“Is this how Blue and White attacks the media? Such great democrats,” he said, mocking criticism often leveled at Netanyahu.

“You have the right to go on whatever show you want, but I am just asking the basic questions one should ask of someone who wants to be prime minister,” observed Bardugo. “You mentioned North Korea, where the leader chooses his interviewers. How about an interview by the free press?”

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