Wearing a black polo shirt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crosses the gym and makes his way to a punching bag. He hits it a few times, and then continues with a few more upper body exercises to the beat of the music. It's arms day for the prime minister in episode two of his new vlog launched last week. As with most things Netanyahu does, it has become the most talked-about story on the social networks.
Critics ridiculed the “personality cult” he’s promoting. Some suggested jokingly that the prime minister should wait until he goes to prison before he starts working out. But one thing is certain: No one is ignoring the videos, and Netanyahu’s new media team is already busy with the next few episodes.
Netanyahu said in the first episode, which aired on June 2, that he is the first prime minister — or at least one of the first — to have a vlog. The second episode, released two days later and called, “Working Out,” was almost twice as long as the first at over seven jam-packed minutes.
In the video diary, Netanyahu takes his audience behind the scenes and shares a first-person account of his days. The camera is right behind him as he walks the Knesset corridors, surrounded by security guards in masks. It shows him entering his heavily protected car and strolling along the paths of the Ministry of Defense compound in Tel Aviv, where he has another office. Netanyahu is sending a clear message: The prime minister works non-stop from morning to night for the citizens of Israel.
This message is vital for Netanyahu, especially now that his trial has begun. He wants to convince the Israeli public that despite that unfortunate nuisance, he is still managing the affairs of the state. If the prime minister knows one thing, it is that as long as the people connect directly with him, he will maintain his wild popularity and perhaps even increase it.
The scenes are well staged. For example, the book that happens to be lying on his desk in the Knesset is “The Devil’s Alliance.” Netanyahu shows the book to the camera and says that it is about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Accord, right before World War II. He explains, “This was the agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.” Then he invites his viewers to accompany him to a meeting of the Knesset’s Likud faction. Once again, the camera follows him down the Knesset’s long corridors, surrounded by his security detail. When he finally returns to his office, he complains that he isn’t allowed out enough because of security concerns. Then he raises the blinds to show a panoramic view of Jerusalem. Netanyahu can be heard saying, “I just want to see if the sun is still shining out there.” The scenes are short and the music is always upbeat, giving a sense of constant activity and great strength.
During the vlog’s second episode, in his office in the Defense Ministry, Netanyahu tells his audience, “This is the office. I just had meetings with all the top brass of the defense establishment, including the [IDF] chief of staff, the director of the Mossad and the director of the Shin Bet.” He then takes his viewers on a brief tour of the office, stopping at an enormous map of the Middle East. “I have a map like this in every office,” he says. “I always want to know where I live, and I never want to forget what kind of neighborhood we live in. We have to keep our feet on the ground.”
New episodes are expected to flood the web in the coming days. He reportedly plans to bring his audience into his famous home on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, showing the kind of scenes that news channels can mine for stories.
The vlog's timing is no coincidence. Netanyahu may have formed his fifth government a little less than a month ago, but he is still in campaign mode. The agreement that serves as the basis for the current unity government has Defense Minister Benny Gantz replacing Netanyahu as prime minister in a year and a half. Still, it is widely assumed in the political realm that Netanyahu will rip the agreement apart and call early elections before then.
It's not ridiculous speculation. Netanyahu enjoys record popularity in recent polls, despite his legal position. Another election could certainly help him.
But there is another reason. His trial is expected to last several years, and could wear away his standing among the public. Netanyahu plans to manage the trial on two levels: through his lawyer in court, where he will fight for his innocence, and outside the courtroom, before the public. Though the trial should be independent of public opinion, the public support will help him maintain his political power, and that is what will let him continue to serve as prime minister despite his tenuous legal status.
Netanyahu is a virtuoso when it comes to using social networks to connect directly with each Israeli. In so doing, he also reduces the influence of the traditional media, which is focused on his trial, the charges against him and most recently new evidence of his wife’s alleged offensive behavior toward the staff of the prime minister’s residence.
This remarkable digital campaign is being run by a small new media team, made up of three people, all of them under 30. One of them is Topaz Luk, a personal friend of the prime minister’s son Yair.
Digital strategist Itay Tsamir tells Al-Monitor that when it comes to social media, Netanyahu outshines any other Israeli politician. It is the result of years of hard work, but also lots of money. He gained millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Now, with his vlog, Netanyahu is moving to the next phase.