Israel Pulse

Netanyahu’s engineered image

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Article Summary
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his family history and memories are turned into tools to promote his image in Israel and around the world.

“This is going to be different than other interviews you’ve done, because this is not about policy or the state of the world; it’s about you and how you became who you are today.” This introduction by Harvey Levin — the host of Fox News Channel’s 10-part series “OBJECTified” — at the start of his interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Oct. 9 sounded promising.

The format features in-depth, intimate interviews with high-profile newsmakers and celebrities discussing their lives through personal items and photos.

A 35-minute “personal” interview at his home revealed that despite the passage of time, Netanyahu was unable to proffer a single authentically intimate moment. Even the stories of his early childhood were spun to create an image of Netanyahu as the ultimate leader of the modern-day Jewish State of Israel, son of a "generation born with the state.”

At the start of the interview, Netanyahu chose to display a sprig, which he said was clipped from a tree planted by his father in the family home’s backyard in Jerusalem when he was 5 or 6 years old. He described a vivid memory of finding his professor father — historian Benzion Netanyahu — digging in the yard, an activity he was to repeat year after year. “And today these trees are gigantic,” he said. “That’s the story of Israel. You have to water the tree, you have to dig, you have to make sure it gets enough sunshine, you have to give it enough fertilizer, but the tree grows against all odds.”

The subtext and symbolism are unmistakable: Since childhood, Netanyahu has been inextricably bound to his homeland. Anyone expecting a simple, prosaic story from the memory of a 5-year-old child instead got hackneyed Zionist motifs and national symbolism. These themes were woven into the interview in various permutations and periods of his life: as a Jewish-Israeli youngster in the United States in the 1960s and as an officer in an elite Israeli military unit who lost his brother, Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, in the daring raid to rescue the Entebbe hostages in 1976. This time, too, he told the story of how he flew to Cornell University in New York where his father was teaching to break the tragic news of his brother’s death.

Levin, the founder of the popular TMZ celebrity news website, asked, “When you look back, what is the best quality you think you got from your Dad?” Netanyahu's response, “The ability to clarify your thoughts,” was followed by a clip from an October 2015 United Nations speech: “Here is my message to the rulers of Iran: Your plan to destroy Israel will fail.” The message was clear: Netanyahu is an integral link in thousands of years of Jewish leadership.

The same was true when Levin asked, “You were on a trajectory of success in America … and you go home and join the Israeli army. So what drove you back?” Netanyahu answered, “I had a very strong identity, having been born here. I was raised here knowing Jewish history. I never thought of my life as separate from the life of my people, my country.”

There was nothing new or intimate in the interview. Netanyahu briefly mentioned his two young sons, saying they were the ones who kept him informed about social media and everything that wasn’t politics or diplomacy. The prime minister was not asked about the shenanigans of his son Yair, who recently put up several controversial posts damaging to leftist Israeli organizations, including an anti-Semitic caricature. This is a question every journalist should ask during such an interview.

Nor did he talk about his daughter, Noa, from his first wife, Miki Haran. Noa, 37, is ultra-Orthodox and lives in Jerusalem. Netanyahu is grandfather to her three children. The decision to omit this subject from the interview — despite it being a significant element in a conversation about his personal life — calls into question the interview’s credibility.

Netanyahu presented the world with an engineered autobiography devoid of authentic human moments — exactly as he does in every interview or conversation. Many an interviewer has gone to the prime minister’s residence in recent years to film a “personal” interview with Netanyahu and left with identical results. In 2014, stand-up comedian and entertainer Eli Yatzpan interviewed Netanyahu on Israel’s 66th Independence Day. Netanyahu took him on a tour of his office, pointing to the photos he had chosen to hang — Moses and Zionism founder Theodor Herzl — and explained that these two leaders “extricated Israel from slavery to freedom.” There was also a photo of Winston Churchill “because he always remembered that threats should be identified in time.”

The same pattern repeated itself in an interview on Israeli Channel 20 that aired in December 2015 as part of a series titled “Generations.” Netanyahu sat beside his younger brother, Iddo, and ostensibly spoke about his private life — linking it all to Jewish history and nation-building. “I found notebooks with wonderful compositions I wrote in fifth grade about the Maccabees and the rise of the Romans [who conquered Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago],” Netanyahu reminisced. He said he experienced a crisis in his teens when his family moved to the United States and he was cut off from his homeland.

With the passage of time, the public image that Netanyahu strives to present has overshadowed his real life story. The difficulties and downfalls he experienced as a child, youth and politician have been wiped out of his biography, clearing the stage for pathos-filled memories, symbolism and nationalism. With every such interview, Netanyahu manages to sear himself into the collective consciousness as the ultimate Jewish-Israeli icon. Harnessing his rhetorical abilities and carefully choosing his interviewers, Netanyahu tries to shape his life for posterity as a one-in-a-generation leader, educated from the moment he was born to sacrifice his life for his country. Therefore, he invariably does everything possible to minimize the significance of the police investigations swirling around him, of his human foibles and especially the hedonism with which he conducts himself as prime minister.

Netanyahu’s sons should explain to him that in an era of an unfettered flow of information on Twitter and Facebook, the ability to control the way he will be remembered and judged is limited — if not nonexistent.

Found in: Jerusalem

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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