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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

A Letter to the Overseas Media: How to Interview PM Netanyahu

For someone who knows how to speak very well to citizenry and media alike, it is disconcerting that PM Netanyahu almost never conducts a press conference taking questions from reporters in Israel. He also hardly ever allows himself to be interviewed in the media – unless it’s the relatively new, and hyper-supportive, Channel 14 (Israel’s version of Fox News) – or overseas TV channels.

There are three problems with this state of affairs (and a lack of probing the affairs of state), especially regarding interviews in foreign media. First, they tend to focus on “here and now” news, without taking a step back to probe Netanyahu’s “contribution” to the problematic background underlying contemporary issues. Second, almost all foreign journalists are not (and cannot be expected to be) experts on Israel’s domestic politics, especially the intricacies involved in how the past has led to the present. Third, by focusing on “now,” there is little questioning of where the prime minister is leading Israel into the future.

As my modest contribution to the foreign press lucky enough to gain an interview with PM Netanyahu in the future, here are a few questions that almost never get asked in such interviews – but definitely are of great concern to Israelis or cause great consternation.

1) Mr. Prime Minister, during the past thirty years, almost all of which you served as leader of your party, virtually every single major politician has left your party the Likud. Here’s only a partial list: Roni Milo, David Levy, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Limor Livnat, Dan Meridor, Tzipi Livni, Gideon Saar, Moshe (Bogi) Yaalon, Zeev Elkin – and perhaps the most damning of all, Benny Begin, the son of PM Menachem Begin. What does that say about your leadership when so many of your party’s flesh and blood have left in anger or frustration?

2) On Feb. 28, 2012, during your speech at the retirement of the President of the Supreme Court Dorit Beinisch, you publicly stated the following (in Hebrew): “Wherever there is no strong and independent judicial system, rights cannot be protected. In fact, the difference between countries where there are rights on paper, and countries where there are rights in practice, is a strong and independent legal system. This is why I am doing, and will continue to do, everything in my power to maintain a strong and independent judicial system.”

And yet here we are in 2023, and your party is trying to radically change that very judicial system in several ways. What has changed between 2012 and 2023 to necessitate such a “judicial reform” program?  Given that Israel’s Supreme Court has not changed in the way it makes decisions – procedurally or substantively – the only significant change over that decade is that you are on trial in three major cases. Could that be the underlying reason for such an attempt to “reform” the judiciary?

3) You have said time and again that guaranteeing the continued strength of Israel into the future is your prime goal. Part of that is military power. Another element is economic; indeed, you are credited with saving the Israeli economy back in 2003 as Finance Minister during the Second Intifada. And yet, there is one socio-economic trend that if it continues unabated will disastrously weaken Israel’s economy and threaten its future: the extremely high birthrate of the ultra-Orthodox who not only don’t serve in the army but whose educational system insists on not teaching the basics: science and English. Yet you have not only continued to enable this refusal on the part of these coalition partners of yours, but in the two-year 2023-2024 budget that your government just passed you have even increased subsidization of those schools! According to present trends, half of all incoming elementary school pupils by mid-century will be ultra-Orthodox. The question: how does this ensure Israel’s future economic (and concomitant military) strength? Iran might have an external, nuclear bomb by then, but isn’t this domestic policy of yours just as serious a time bomb moving into the future?

* * *

A final suggestion to you, the foreign interviewers. Mr. Netanyahu is a master at circumlocution and circumvention – avoiding embarrassing questions by changing the subject or providing non sequitur responses. Don’t let him get away with it. A simple “Excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister, but you are avoiding the question,” or: “you haven’t answered what I asked,” has to be a part of your journalistic arsenal. Don’t be afraid to use it again and again if need be. All of Israel will be watching with bated breath. As we don’t get answers in Israel from our prime minister, we unfortunately have to rely on the free press elsewhere.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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