Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had a very bad week, in the midst of a very bad year. He lost Tucker Carlson, one of the world’s most renowned promoters of the kind of Hungarian illiberalism he’s trying to sneak through Israel’s back door. His underlings have been treated rudely at the General Assembly – a conference of over 2,000 American Jews meeting in Tel Aviv to celebrate Israel’s 75th. It got so bad that he decided not to show up. That’s unheard of for Netanyahu. He never saw an American Jewish audience he couldn’t devour with his toughness and charm, who wouldn’t treat him like some sort of demigod, even when he acts more like a demagogue. But this week he decided to take his toys and go home.
Only one problem: He was home.
He probably would have received a quasi-polite reception at the conference, and maybe his supporters would have raised that up a notch with a forced standing-O. American Jews, for the most part, have not been among the more vocal protesters of the radical unmooring of judiciary checks and balances being planned by this government. They would have been respectful of the office, if not the man, and perhaps that would have been proper. But Bibi saw the warning lights and stayed home.
My gut tells me he stayed away from this confab because he has had a tough time with Americans lately, especially those representing our annoyingly free press. In the past, he’s been able to dazzle American journalists with his fancy charts (remember his cartoon bomb at the U.N.?) and insider references to historical anecdotes that only someone with an American background would know. He’s done this ever since he bore a gas mask on CNN during the first Gulf War.
In the past, he could rely on a quasi functional G.O.P Congressional leadership to pave the way for him to bypass the White House and media to get a hearing directly before the American people.
But right now that isn’t happening. And when he decided to try his luck with American anchors at CNN, NBC and CBS, thinking they would be friendlier than the Israeli mainstream media – or at the very least less knowledgeable about the judicial coup – he found that he could no longer rely on Margaret Brennan, Jake Tapper and Chuck Todd.
This week was Margaret’s turn. The interview on Face the Nation was aired just as the news of the Prime Minister’s shocking decision to avoid the General Assembly was coming out. Perhaps he was covering his tracks in case the interview didn’t go well, since his prior week’s interview on Meet the Press had been a disaster.
Chuck Todd of Meet the Press is not known for being an especially tough interviewer. Here was his first question:
Let me start with your judicial reform package. To say that it has gotten a negative reception might be an understatement. Your own defense minister called for a pause in it. He was concerned about it hurting Israel’s security due to so many reservists being upset about it. The Israeli public, public approval for you has plummeted. The most recent Channel 13 poll has 71% disapproving of the job you are doing. Even among your own Likud Party members, more people have a negative view of your job than a positive. And late last week, the credit agency Moody’s downgraded Israel’s economic rating due to what it said was what “reflects a deterioration of Israel’s governance, as illustrated by the recent events around the government proposal for overhauling the country’s judiciary.” Given all of this, have you decided to rethink and pull back on some of your reform ideas?
I could argue that is the toughest question any Israeli Prime Minister has ever been given on American television. I’d have to check the transcripts following Sabra and Shatila, but it’s hard to imagine a single, opening question containing more bad news than that.
Todd went on to follow up by bringing up Bibi’s own legal troubles (the one bad thing he didn’t bring into the first question).
But do you understand why perhaps your opponents in the country just don’t take you at face value about the judicial reforms because you yourself would benefit from these reforms due to your corruption trial and the ability, perhaps, to make this either corruption trial totally go away or be delayed? How can you lead this effort if you yourself may benefit from this effort? How do you make it credible to the public?
Netanyahu looked visibly shaken and his answers showed none of the old pizzazz.
His reply? The tried-and-true “fake news” gambit.
Here’s another fib, another lie. It’s just not true. My – my own legal proceedings, which by the way are crumbling, all these charges against me have been crumbling. It’s interesting that the hostile press stopped covering it, stopped covering the trial the minute it began because things are just crumbling one after the other. But be that as it may, it’s important to understand the judges in my case have already been chosen. I’ve made it absolutely, abundantly clear that the reform will not affect any judge who today or tomorrow, in the future has to deal with my case. So my case is completely independent from this. And the thing that people have to understand is…
Todd cut him off:
Well, the Knesset did change — they did change the incapacity law – – right? They changed the incapacity law on the prime minister to make sure that if you’re indicted, that that wouldn’t be cause for removal.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU:
No, that actually is something that —
Or, excuse me, if you’re convicted, then it wouldn’t be cause for removal.
Whoa! I’m not sure even Yonit Levi of Israel’s Channel 12 could have come back as smoothly. It was a bravura performance by Todd, who deserves credit for finally standing up to the bully.
Perhaps that emboldened Margaret Brennan to take her shot. And that might well have signaled to the Prime Minister that America had changed from the friendly, fawning place he had conquered so many times. It’s rather fitting that, in terms of its treatment of Netanyahu, America became Tel Aviv, just as the diaspora leadership was meeting in Tel Aviv. He had to realize that was not in Kansas anymore, that this was not the fawning America of John Boehner, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.
Think about it. If the reason for avoiding the diaspora audience at the G.A. was strictly security (and such a concern would have been legitimate), he could have appeared on video from a remote location, as he has done so often at conventions taking place in New York or Washington. He could have found a safer place in Tel Aviv? Maybe Sara’s hairdresser?
That might have demonstrated weakness, but not showing up was far worse. It demonstrated political fear – fear of his own people. And it showed that he has given up hope on convincing diaspora Jewry to stick by him.
It was said that when one of Brennan’s predecessors as CBS anchor, the legendary Walter Cronkite, came back from Vietnam and gave a scathing report of his findings in Feb. of 1968, President Johnson famously commented, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
Last Sunday morning on CBS, Netanyahu lost Margaret Brennan, and he lost America. It’s not that she was that tough on him, no tougher than Todd. She simply persisted and asked follow up questions, the kind of questions not allowed in an illiberal democracy.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You had to cancel a Monday appearance at the largest gathering of North American Jewish leaders in years because of these protest concerns. Again, why not withdraw the proposal to overhaul the judicial system, which would give parliament, which is controlled by your allies, authority to overturn supreme court decisions?
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, I’ve actually said that I will not accept a blanket ability of the parliament to overcome judicial supreme court decisions, just as we don’t accept that the supreme court can abrogate any decision by the parliament or the government. Both sides – both of these extremes actually hinder the balance between the three branches of government, which is exactly what we’re trying to bring into balance now. There is, I think, a difficult and happy middle.
MARGARET BRENNAN: No, but, Sir, you’re making this sound like it’s just a debate.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It is.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You’re making it sound like this is just a simple debate like any other country, but you, yourself, used the phrase that you were pausing because you wanted to stop the possibility of civil war. That was a phrase you used when you hit pause.
I want to – I want to just lay out for you here what it has done here in the United States. Those judicial plans led President Biden to say he won’t be inviting you to Washington any time soon.
After this, she did not let up for an instant, shifting to other hot button topics related not to Iran or terrorism, but to extremists in the Bibi’s government, including one who is ostensibly about to be chosen as Consul General for New York.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Can you clarify this for us as well because it’s making headlines in the U.S. Politician May Golan said that you are considering appointing her to be consul general in New York. She calls herself a proud racist. She’s denounced African refugees as Muslim infiltrators and criminals spreading HIV.
Are you nominating her to actually serve in New York, an incredibly important post for Israel?
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It is indeed an incredibly important post and anyone I’ll nominate, and I haven’t done so, will have to abide and will abide by the mainstream positions that I’ve advocated and I welcome the fact that the United States has a multiracial, in pluralistic (ph) society. So does Israel. And as anyone I appoint will have to reflect the value that I attach to that quality and our democracy and in yours.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So, you are not appointing her?
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I haven’t, but I’m telling you —
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you won’t?
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: That anyone that I will appoint will abide stringently by that view that I’ve advocated throughout my lifetime. And it’s not proforma. It’s not lip service. I really believe that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: OK. Sounds like you’re saying she’s not coming to New York.
He didn’t say that, but now CBS viewers, including many American Jews, think he did. If he goes ahead with the appointment, he risks being labeled a liar by this powerful anchor.
The questioning then turned to disturbing polling showing a dramatic erosion of support for Israel among Democrats, to which the response was a defensive deflection of blame to other Israeli governments (almost all of which were led by him). By the time the interview was over, I expected a referee to step in and stop the fight. I half expected the Prime Minister to cry to his inquisitor, “Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, God.” But Margaret was not genuflecting.
Nothing about Iran or the Abraham Accords. Nothing about celebrating Israel at 75. None of Bibi’s greatest hits. I stared at the TV and asked myself, Who is this guy?
I don’t think we’ll be seeing Netanyahu on American TV for a good long while. Maybe Netanyahu should follow the lead of President Johnson once he realized he had lost Walter Cronkite. That’s when he took his toys home to his ranch and backed away from politics altogether. There could be a nice plea deal awaiting the Israeli leader should he elect to do the same.
And maybe American Jewish leaders, who have been sitting on the fence for far too long, will take their cues from Jake and Chuck and Margaret and stop bowing down when the man who a would-be dictator enters the room.
If he dares to show up at all.