Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scared.
Not, ostensibly, of the masses of citizens on the streets protesting against his moves to undermine the country’s judiciary, nor of the deep economic and security damage this has already caused, nor of his strained ties with Washington. He has breezily swatted away those concerns in an unprecedented media blitz in American and British outlets: 22 in total since the start of the year and his dramatic return to power at the head of the most far-right government in Israeli history. During the same time period, he has given exactly zero interviews to the local mainstream Israeli media. Zero.
Which can only mean one thing: The country’s longest-serving premier is self-evidently scared, likely for good reason.
The only Hebrew-language outlet on which Netanyahu has deigned to appear is the fawning Channel 14, a right-wing television “news” channel that has drawn comparisons to Newsmax and RT for its relationship to pesky things like facts and journalism. Yet, even here, in the “great leader’s” last proper Hebrew-language interview in April, “the feeling,” as the host laid out, was “not great.”
“It seems that something here isn’t working out. Economically, there isn’t any good news. If anything, the situation isn’t very bright. Security, we see. There’s a sour feeling in general,” the host posited to Netanyahu.
In light of these intrusions, Netanyahu doubled down on his foreign media strategy, especially after the passage in Parliament late last month of the first judicial overhaul bill, which took away the supreme court’s power to review government decisions and appointments. Nearly all major U.S. outlets have been granted interviews over the past three weeks, to the consternation of both the Israeli media (for obvious reasons) and many who wanted Netanyahu to face stiffer questioning.
“Attention journalists,” The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman tweeted earlier this month. “If Bibi Netanyahu gives you an interview he thinks you’re a sucker.”
This was admittedly less than charitable: Some of the interviewers, particularly those actually based in Israel, did pose stiff questions to the American-accented, smooth-talking Netanyahu. (One of Israel’s leading TV anchors, Channel 12’s Yonit Levi, quipped last week that if the issue was language, she would be more than happy to interview the famously bilingual Netanyahu in English.)
Yet many of the interviews, especially those conducted by foreign anchors and podcasters not steeped in the minutiae of Israeli politics or constitutional law, were undeniably less hard-hitting. Netanyahu deployed fusillades of spin, half-truths and outright lies that weren’t picked up.
The goal, as Netanyahu’s Likud party spokesman made clear last weekend, is to assuage international concerns about the ongoing crisis inside Israel, which President Isaac Herzog recently termed a “state of national emergency.”
For his part, Netanyahu has tried to project an image of “business as usual” to the outside world — but also to his domestic subjects. Given the lack of any real questioning in Hebrew, the local press is left to scour the prime minister’s English-language utterances for clues as to his intentions, which then become major news inside Israel (not dissimilar to how Israelis cover neighboring autocrats and militant leaders).
Netanyahu has, in recent weeks, tried to describe away the internal unrest as the natural product of a “raucous democratic debate,” minimizing the scale of the demonstrations on the streets and calling the legislation already passed a “minor rebalancing.”
He was repeatedly noncommittal when asked whether he would adhere to a supreme court ruling next month possibly striking down the legislation. Officials and analysts fear a constitutional crisis between the government and judiciary is looming. He also recently insisted that he would continue with his judicial overhaul push when Parliament reconvenes in October, taking aim at the committee that appoints judges, with an eye to wholly politicizing the process.
Given the complex subject matter, the stakes and the interviewee, it behooves any foreign outlet receiving an invitation to interview Netanyahu to take two things into account.
First, he will almost certainly obfuscate. It’s to be expected. The best remedy is to deploy hard data points and actual quotes — ideally from his own mouth, but also from serving or former officials close to him — that he’ll find difficult to refute. Think the late Tim Russert of “Meet the Press” fame interviewing the other serial fabricator of our age, Donald Trump. Second, and relatedly, try to avoid well-worn questions that have been posed to him repeatedly and for which he will have well-worn responses.
“Bibi is a cool customer,” says one journalist involved in planning a recent interview with Netanyahu. “Time management is critical, there is a lot to ask and a lot of ground to cover, and you’re always worried about him filibustering.”
With this in mind, herewith are seven humble questions that should be posed to the Israeli prime minister in his (inevitable) next foreign media interview; questions that reflect the current zeitgeist in the country that Netanyahu keeps dodging:
1. Mr. Prime Minister, you have described the Israeli Supreme Court as “the most activist in the world,” especially over the past 30 years, during which you allege the balance between the branches of government has been violated — which is what you claim you’re trying to remedy now.
But in 2012, you said this very same court was “a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world,” that it “protects democracy and its developed worldview” and that “a strong and independent justice system is what allows for the existence of all the other institutions in a democracy.” You also said that “the difference between countries in which there are rights on paper and countries in which there are rights in fact is a strong and independent justice system. This is the reason why I have done and will continue to do everything in my power to safeguard a strong and independent justice system.”
How do you explain the vast chasm between what you said then and what you’re doing now to curtail the strength and independence of your justice system — with the only real difference between then and now being the fact that you’re currently on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust?
2. Hundreds of thousands of your own citizens have been on the streets now for 32 straight weeks — over eight months — in what is the largest and longest protest movement in Israeli history. According to one survey, a fifth of the population — 2 million people — has taken part in at least one demonstration. Successive polls going back to January show some 60%-70% of the public opposes either the substance of your “judicial reform” or pursuing it unilaterally without genuine and broad consensus. Even a third of your own Likud party voters feel this way, according to multiple polls. Your governing coalition — in power only since late December — is deeply unpopular and hemorrhaging support in every poll, and this after the most recent election late last year was a dead heat when you tally up the popular vote (which of course did return a clear parliamentary majority for you and your coalition, per the rules of the Israeli electoral system).
Given all of this, and the divisive nature of your judicial agenda, wouldn’t it be better to stop completely, and move forward only with a broad consensus? Barring that, why not call a nationwide referendum to receive a clear mandate for what is obviously a highly contentious issue that even the Israeli president has warned could lead to civil war?
3. Your generals have been warning about the damage that has already been caused to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) because of the judicial overhaul push. Thousands of military reservists are refusing to report for duty in protest, especially in the air force, special forces, intelligence, navy, cyber command and other branches. The head of the air force this past weekend said the “damage is getting deeper and deeper” and that the service will “not return to what it was.” Top security officials are reportedly worried that cohesion inside military units has been fatally undermined, and that as early as next month their operational effectiveness will be compromised.
The IDF chief of staff warned you prior to the passage of the first judicial overhaul bill last month that it would have grave consequences for the military. In late March, during your first attempt to pass these laws, your own defense minister gave a speech warning of the “clear and present danger” that such a move would pose, and urged a halt. In response, you fired him (and then later unfired him amid mass protests).
This time around, you have yet to convene the security cabinet for a full accounting of the ramifications of all this on the military and other security organs. Are you not jeopardizing Israeli national security by pushing ahead with these judicial “reforms”?
4. Like your security chiefs, every one of Israel’s leading financial officials has warned of the grave economic consequences of the judicial overhaul. The Bank of Israel issued a report last month saying that it was the main risk to the country’s economic forecast. International credit ratings agencies like Moody’s and Morgan Stanley have issued their own warnings and downgraded Israel’s outlook, while the head of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange said last week that Israel’s “economic power is in danger.”
The shekel has depreciated against the dollar by more than 10% since January, and the stock market has risen by less than 4% while the S&P 500 rose by some 17% this year. The Israeli tech sector, in which you have rightfully taken such great pride, is in open revolt on the streets; according to the Start-Up Nation Central think tank, nearly 70% of Israeli tech firms have begun moving either money or people (or both) overseas. Similarly, according to the Calcalist financial daily, some 33 billion shekels (almost $9 billion) have been moved out of the country by Israeli pension funds. All told, the paper estimated, the judicial overhaul has already cost the Israeli economy some 150 billion shekels.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said last week that the state of the economy was “excellent.” You and he issued a statement a few weeks ago saying that the above warnings and data points were simply a “momentary reaction.” So who should we believe here?
5. You have staked much of your political capital and legacy on combating the Iranian nuclear threat. In 2018, you took credit for the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, saying “we convinced the U.S. president.”
Today, Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than it has ever been, and numerous Israeli officials and experts both current and former regard that decision as disastrous.
Iran today has severely limited international inspections, is enriching uranium at 60% instead of the 3.67% if the deal were in place, has “amassed enough nuclear material for several weapons” according to the U.N.’s top nuclear watchdog, and a senior Pentagon official earlier this year said it would take Iran 12 days to produce one bomb’s worth of fissile material.
Is this not, according to every metric, a major policy failure on your part?
6. Your cabinet recently passed a decision to “work to avoid the collapse of the Palestinian Authority” (PA), with reports that you and the Israeli security establishment view the PA as a “strategic asset” in counterterrorism cooperation and upholding stability in the West Bank. At the same time, since the start of the year, your government has set a record for settlement construction in the West Bank and you have personally made clear that the Palestinians will never attain genuine self-determination.
If this is the reality on offer — a gradually worsening status quo — then why should the Palestinian leadership, let alone the Palestinian people, continue to believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And if there is no prospect for statehood, then why should the Palestinians not simply demand equal political and civil rights in Israel?
7. I’m not one to talk myself out of a job, Mr. Prime Minister, but I have to highlight the fact that you’ve given nearly two dozen interviews to foreign media outlets since you returned to office, and none to mainstream Israeli news outlets. I strongly believe that a vibrant and independent press which is able to ask tough questions of its elected leaders is critical to the health of any democracy. With this in mind, I would like to relinquish my last question to (any) Israeli reporter, in the hope of directing a relevant and urgent query to the prime minister.
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