Israel Pulse

Netanyahu's strategy of silence

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went silent on social media during the recent conflict with Hamas, trying to keep from the public that he is engaged in negotiations with the terrorist organization.

A careful look at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popular and otherwise active Facebook and Twitter accounts during the last round of fighting in Gaza gives no indication of what was actually happening on Israel’s southern front. Netanyahu effectively silenced his accounts from Aug. 8 to 10, for a total of three days. At the time, Hamas was firing rockets at Jewish localities in the western Negev; the Israeli air force was bombing targets in the Gaza Strip; the Cabinet had met for a lengthy emergency session; and the overall feeling across the country was that all-out war was just short of inevitable.

Even in the days leading up to his “net silence,” Netanyahu did not mention the tensions in the south. His posts and tweets focused on how vital the Nationality Law is to the country, and he directed readers to an article in his home paper, Israel Hayom, which reported on Aug. 6 that he chastised the Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide over allowing money from her country to fund left-wing groups, which, he claimed, attempt to delegitimize Israel.

On that same day, he released an unusually exuberant post, praising US President Donald Trump’s decision to reimpose economic sanctions against Iran. Two days later, on Aug. 4, he boasted about how the S&P credit-rating agency decided to raise Israel’s credit rating. As Netanyahu described it, the decision was made in recognition of Israel’s economic strength and his own economic policies. Not a word was said about escalating tensions in Gaza, which was the most pressing issue at the time, interrupting the lives of tens of thousands of the people living in settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu only returned to Facebook two days after the cease-fire with Hamas, and even then, he did not refer to Gaza. It was not as if the problem disappeared. It simply dropped off the agenda temporarily. When he started posting again, the prime minister stuck to his national and nationalist agenda, which inevitably includes the delegitimization of the left and Israeli Arabs. By doing this, he was able to draw attention away from the major issue on Israelis’ minds only two days earlier: the possibility that Israel was about to face another war with Hamas in Gaza. On the night of Aug. 11, he posted a video of the demonstration against the Nationality Law, which took place in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, in which Israeli Arabs were seen waving Palestinian flags. Alongside it he wrote, “There is no greater evidence of the necessity of the Nationality Law.”

If you give it the slightest thought, you will find that it is both amazing and disturbing that the Israeli prime minister was able to avoid being called to account by his supporters over what had been happening in Gaza for the past few days. He did not call a press conference, post a video or explain who Israel negotiated with in exchange for a cease-fire. He did not mention what the cost of that cease-fire was or what his long-term plans for Gaza might be. Nor was this the first time that Netanyahu relied on Israelis’ short memories. So many Israelis are on their summer holiday and do not want to be bothered by the escalating conflict in Gaza.

At best, this behavior in the hours leading up to the cease-fire explains how Netanyahu and the members of his Cabinet ignored their obligation to tell the people they lead about what is really happening in Gaza. At worst, they are actually lying to them.

Shortly before midnight on Thursday, Al Jazeera cited Egyptian sources, saying that a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas had been reached in Gaza. A foreign diplomat who knew about the negotiations confirmed this, noting that the two parties had agreed to stop firing at each other, and that the agreement would go into effect at midnight. A senior Israeli source denied this report in statements to political and military journalists. Then, the next day, after a quiet night, it turned out that Al Jazeera and the Egyptians were right, and that the lies were coming from the Israeli side.

Neither Netanyahu nor any of his people said a word about the cease-fire, even though that is what actually happened on the ground. This makes it look like the top Israeli leadership was trying to obscure the fact that Netanyahu is conducting negotiations with Hamas. Veteran political and military reporters expressed their rage in tweets about the misleading statements. They even ridiculed the government, saying that Al Jazeera was more reliable.

What made them especially angry was that this was not the first time Netanyahu provided a distorted picture of the situation to conceal that he was actually engaged in negotiations with Hamas. The same thing happened last May, during the last round of fighting. Cairo reported that there was a cease-fire, and Israeli denied it. Then, it became quite clear that the Egyptians were right, and that someone has been deceiving journalists and the Israeli public. The same exact thing happened after Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.

Netanyahu cannot allow himself to be perceived as a prime minister who maintains contacts with Hamas. He is, after all, “Mr. Security,” who ran in the 2006 election under the unforgettable slogan: “Strong against Hamas.” Then again, everybody knows the truth, including the most right-wing members of the Cabinet: Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel did negotiate with Hamas this week, and it wasn’t the first time either.

Much has been written about Netanyahu’s adroitness at spinning a story and redirecting the country’s agenda. He gets better and more sophisticated at it from one year to the next. It is the same media strategy that he used with the investigations into his alleged corruption: Delegitimize groups conducting the investigation, chief among them the Israel Police and the police commissioner. At the same time, he kept a very busy schedule and traveled overseas much more frequently. The message was clear. Despite the petty investigation, Israel still has a prime minister who is an international statesman. After all, his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts are packed with photos of him meeting world leaders.

There is no doubt that Netanyahu is able to behave on social networks as if he is living in a parallel universe in which he can focus exclusively on whatever is convenient for him, while ignoring those problems that cause him harm. With more than 2 million followers on Facebook, Netanyahu can push the reality that suits him best, without ever being called into account. He can ignore the fact that he spoke with Hamas. After all, anyone who says he did is labeled a leftist or a traitor.

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Found in: social media, gaza, hamas, benjamin netanyahu

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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