In one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s first television appearances as prime minister in the years 1996-1999, he was interviewed at his office by Ehud Yaari and Dan Scemama from Channel 1. Before the broadcast, Netanyahu asked the production staff to tell him which of the two cameras they brought with them provides a frontal view of him. The purpose of his question became clear during the interview: Netanyahu ignored the interviewers and turned directly to the viewers at home.
Ever since then, Channel 1 has made sure to refrain from posting such camera in interviews with the PM.
These visual tricks also prompted the rhetorical tricks. In the 1996 elections campaign, Netanyahu declared in a press conference that he is committed to the Rabin and Peres government decisions in respect to the Oslo Accords. When he did not deliver on his pledge, he explained that sometimes “yes” means “no.” That is, he will be committed to the process if the Palestinians stand on their heads and sing Israel’s national anthem in Yiddish, or something like that.
At first, Bibi was received enthusiastically by the Israeli public, and the media also showed mercy. Yet slowly, the tricks and spins accumulated and became the essence. The result was loss of credibility and Netanyahu’s ousting.
In 2009, Netanyahu is the same Netanyahu, but the media learned the lessons of the past. In his Bar-Ilan speech, the prime minister announced the invention of a magic sticker, which through revolutionary software managed to reveal that staunch rightist Benny Begin and centrist Livni have the same pulse and blood-sugar levels. Netanyahu referred to it as a demilitarized Palestinian state that can be accepted by both the Left and Right.
Yet something here wasn’t quite right. Just like in the case of the “heart sticker scam,” it was too good to be true. Just like reporters discovered that the software developer behind the heart sticker claims that it is merely a dummy version unconnected to the people it examines, they similarly discovered that Netanyahu’s Palestinian state is a dummy notion unrelated to regional realities.
In an interview with Netanyahu’s father, he said that his son still opposes the notion of a Palestinian state. “Bibi told me that he presented such conditions to its establishment that the other side will obviously not be able to accept,” he said. The “yes” that is in fact a “no” is back. The reaction of Arab states and of Abbas this week showed that Bibi did not mislead his father.
Before the elections, Netanyahu also promised to cut taxes, yet for the time being he keeps on raising them; this may remind him of a lesson from American politics, which he so enthusiastically endorses. In 1988, during the election campaign, George Bush Sr. declared: “Read my lips – no new taxes.” Yet the rise of fuel prices forced him to boost the tax on fuel significantly. Bush attempted to explain that this was done because of developments he had no control over. Yet in the 1992 election campaign, Democratic Party leaders argued that when a politician promises something, he needs to take into account the possibility of changing circumstances. And so Bush, a serving president, was defeated by Clinton.
In an era of personality-focused politicians and vague platforms, the public is especially sensitive to the credibility of leaders. For the leaders, and especially ones who were burned in the past, the abovementioned conduct may constitute political suicide.