Over the past two decades, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly tried to muzzle his many detractors in the mainstream media, which he considers biased against him.
He has long eschewed press conferences and interviews with Israeli journalists, and has publicly called out specific reporters or media outlets for stories he disliked. In 1999, while facing challenger Ehud Barak as incumbent prime minister, Netanyahu famously derided media coverage of him, leading Likud members in a chant, “They are a-f-r-a-i-d.”
His famously combative relationship with the media has soured even further over the past two years, as police have pursued criminal cases against him. Accusing the press of leading a “witch hunt” to oust him — along with the opposition, then the police, and most recently the state prosecution — he has dismissed individual journalists as biased and untrustworthy and denounced critical stories about him as “fake news.”
Yet even as Netanyahu attacks the media, he shows little compunction about using it for his own aims, leading to strange scenes like Saturday night, when he appeared for an interview on the very channel he had called to boycott just two weeks earlier, with no regard for the apparent dissonance. Rather than take his foot off the gas in deference to his hosts, indeed, he shifted his anti-media campaign into high gear.
Fighting perhaps his toughest election since he took office for the second time over a decade ago, Netanyahu assailed the media in a diatribe of indignant criticism while using it to disseminate that very message to voters.
In an extraordinarily combative interview on Channel 12’s “Meet The Press,” Netanyahu repeatedly spoke over interviewer Rina Matzliach, preventing her from asking him questions or speaking as he pleaded for the public to support him in Tuesday’s elections.
Through much of the 23-minute segment, he attacked the Israeli media in general and Channel 12 specifically, including Matzliach herself, accusing the news channel of spreading gossip about him, being biased against him, making up seditious lies about him and failing to fulfill its journalistic responsibility to the public.
“Not one of the other party leaders I have interviewed tonight has spoken to me like you, Mr. Prime Minister,” Matzliach retorted at one point in the onslaught.
Painting himself as “the victim of incitement every day,” Netanyahu repeatedly called on voters to ignore the “lies” and “gossip” that he said the media spread about him, and vote for him on Tuesday.
If he had little regard for his host, he had even less for the specifics she tried to get him to address, as he ducked and weaved around crucial questions about his post-election plans and his purported efforts to save himself from prosecution in three criminal cases.
Crucially, Netanyahu would not commit to returning the mandate to form a government to President Reuven Rivlin if he failed to build a ruling coalition as in the wake of the April election, only saying that he hoped “it doesn’t happen.”
After he was unable to form a coalition following April’s election, Netanyahu pushed through a bill to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections before Rivlin, as the law prescribes, was able to entrust anyone else with forming a government.
Asked if a third election was in the cards, the premier said, “We mustn’t come to that and there’s no reason for us to come to that.”
Netanyahu also evaded a question on whether he would seek to gain immunity from prosecution by reining in the powers of the Supreme Court.
A Haaretz report in May claimed that as part of the then-ongoing coalition negotiations, the prime minister was pushing to advance an extensive reform package that would allow the Knesset and the government to ignore the court’s administrative rulings and permit MKs to resubmit laws that have been struck down by the court in the past. It would thus prevent the court from overruling both Knesset legislation and government decisions, and prevent justices from overturning efforts to shield the prime minister from pending indictments.
Refusing to rule out any such legislation, Netanyahu on Saturday merely said that a long-stalled bill to override the court’s rulings “is about other issues.”
No matter the question, Netanyahu used almost every “answer” to make a direct plea for votes. That’s what he was there for. After all, he can tackle the media’s pesky questions during one of his famously rare press conferences, should voters answer his plea on Tuesday. Until then, he’s set to keep on blitzing the media with his anti-media campaign.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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