The latest Israeli election campaign seemed to last 105 days—from the moment Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid and then went on to trounce their parties at the polls three and a half months later. In reality, though, the campaign was waged and decided in one final, crucial week. It was done mostly on television, and the politician who exploited the media best during that week was undoubtedly Netanyahu.
Exactly one week before the election, Israel’s Channel 2 evening news—the country’s leading prime-time news program, where we work—aired the results of a key poll, which showed that the Zionist Union, led by Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, was beating Netanyahu’s Likud party by four Knesset seats. Similar polls appeared in other Israeli news outlets. Journalists who met Netanyahu that very morning thought he seemed panicked, on the verge of losing. In hindsight, though, they saw a fearless man in the midst of a battle, focused on his goal, at his peak.
In the past six years that Netanyahu has been prime minister, he has granted Israeli news media an average of two or three interviews per year, but has given far more interviews to the American press. He spoke to America’s Face the Nation while he didn’t want to face his own.
In the three days before Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu took a 180-degree turn, speaking to every morning show, radio show, national and local stations. He dominated the airwaves leaving little room for anyone else. The more he talked, the more respect he sought, the less he received. On Israel’s Army Radio, Netanyahu was asked if Sheldon Adelson pulls his strings, while a local Tel Aviv station asked if his wife, Sara, runs the show. The head-butting with interviewers reached its unexpected peak during a television morning show, when a host outright said to him he probably doesn’t care for the welfare of her children. The entire country couldn’t stop talking about that.
Journalists and some viewers likely thought that Netanyahu was making a fool of himself, throwing his statesmanship out the window for a few more votes. But, in fact, this was a brilliant stroke by a master campaigner who knew that the more the media lambasted him, the more his constituents would rally around him. Every journalist who patted him- or herself on the back for asking Netanyahu uncompromising questions was in fact just helping him score points with the voters. The pro who has always known how to exploit the mainstream media while accusing it of toeing a left-wing line stepped up his game even more this time around.
Anyone trying to understand this recent campaign or compare it to American politics needs to understand this: In the United States, there are two main political parties, and anyone who wants to be president has to aim his message at the center, to get 51 percent of the vote. In Israel, because there are so many political parties, and because, in the end, the winner must forge a coalition, anyone who wants to be prime minister needs to get 20 to 25 percent of the public’s support—essentially his own political base—to win. Netanyahu’s remarks throughout the election campaign must be viewed through that prism. All he cared about each time he did an interview, even if it was a phone interview on Channel 2 on election night, was to emphasize that his rivals—leftists, Arabs, even the press—would ruin the country if he wasn’t reelected.
The remarks that came across as crass were, in retrospect, well crafted. Netanyahu on Election Day sat in his office and implored people to vote for him because the Arabs were going to vote “in droves.” Behind Netanyahu was a map of the Middle East where little Israel could be seen surrounded by Arab countries—the perfect visual to prompt voters’ siege mentality (“Vote for me because we’re surrounded by Arabs …”) and particularly voters that support Netanyahu.
What did Herzog do in the meantime? Mainly, he failed to become a telegenic personality. The small screen only enhanced the great difference between the two politicians. Herzog, in private, is calm and wise, but turn on a camera and he comes across as an excited bar mitzvah boy. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is always on, always performing—he appears to be addressing a packed room even if there’s only one person there. The camera is always on, even if there isn’t one in the room.
The defining moment that illustrated this difference took place during a brief, impromptu debate between Netanyahu and Herzog on Channel 2 just three days before the election. Netanyahu, throughout the campaign, refused to take part in a televised debate against Herzog despite his clear on-screen advantage. He also conducted interviews mostly from his home or office, never making studio visits. During the broadcast, senior editors at the station decided to try and create an overlap between interviews with the two candidates—Herzog was at the studio and knew he would have a chance to briefly confront Netanyahu, while the latter was at home and didn’t know.
Netanyahu appeared on a large screen that Herzog requested not to sit across from. The result was that he appeared to be sitting in the corner below Netanyahu, while the latter loomed large, in effect dwarfing Herzog, on the viewers’ screens, and, subliminally, in the viewers’ minds. It wasn’t the calculated decision as Herzog’s advisers later claimed—and no one in the studio or control room realized the effect until it was on air and in living rooms across the country. But most important, Herzog missed a golden opportunity. Instead of grabbing the one chance he had to call out Netanyahu for refusing to debate him on TV, Herzog, clearly nervous, slipped up while trying to defend against an old accusation that Netanyahu leveled against him, that he would divide Jerusalem. “I will keep Netanyahu united,” Herzog declared. That turned out to be true.
Two days after the election, Channel 2 looked back on the campaign that had just ended. Its reporters went back to the south, where factory workers had just been laid off, where two weeks beforehand those workers destroyed their Likud registration cards and said they would vote for Herzog, “just not Bibi,” as the Zionist Union slogan put it. They admitted that, at the moment of truth, they voted for Netanyahu. Why? One of them said he feared the Arabs and the left (guess that map worked); another said that the Likud party was like a wife—you don’t divorce just because of one fight—and a third said that Netanyahu protected them with the Iron Dome during Operation Protective Edge. No one bothered to remind that voter that Iron Dome was the brainchild of Amir Peretz (of the Zionist Union) and was funded by U.S. President Barack Obama, with whom Netanyahu has an icy relationship. Fifty-five years after the Kennedy-Nixon televised debate that transformed politics forever, in Israel there’s still only one politician who has mastered the medium.
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