Trump’s triumph: Netanyahu is in a good mood
Love him or loathe him, when Benjamin Netanyahu walks into the room, everyone pays attention.
Bibi could be in a good mood, or a bad mood, or a little bit of both, but he is always an energy vortex: the center and the star, chest out, chin up, basking in the limelight.
Last week, I was in the room when he entered with the force of a wind tunnel. I was among a group of Jewish journalists from the United States, Europe and Latin America who were invited to Jerusalem at the invitation of his government and watched as Bibi used his charismatic power to polarizing effect.
In a stunning switch from his usual apocalyptic diatribes — including, most notably, to the U.S. Congress — Bibi was in a triumphant, optimistic mood. During a 30-minute, carefully planned press conference, with questions and questioners selected in advance, the Israeli prime minister decided to flout the rules and go off script.
We could ask him anything we wanted, he said.
But when Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, introduced the group and attempted to ask her first question, the impatient prime minister interrupted.
“Is this a speech or a question?” he asked.
He dismissed her inquiry about anti-Semitism in the U.S. — whether from the alt-right or the far left — as a “fringe phenomenon” and pushed the conversation where he wanted it to go.
“After you ask me all these things, I’ll tell you a few things,” he said in his deep, velvety voice. “You might ask me whether something is changing in the world about Israel. What about Israel’s isolation? You gotta ask me that! If you don’t, I’m gonna ask it: Israel’s growing isolation in the world. We have to talk about it.”
He caught our group off guard when he challenged about 50 journalists to guess how many world leaders he is scheduled to meet with in 2017. “Isolation” implies not many, but Bibi didn’t really want us to guess — he wanted to brag.
“Two hundred and fifty!” he exclaimed.
This new Bibi wasn’t pounding the table about Israel as pariah state, or holding up graphs about nuclear proliferation red lines. He was proclaiming the Jewish state as the world’s most popular. He was eager to enumerate a list of recent accomplishments, including lucrative trade deals with Asia and renewed ties to Latin American leaders who want to “change their relationship to Israel.” Then, he borrowed a play straight from Fidel Castro’s playbook and drew our attention to a PowerPoint slide about Israel’s record-shattering dairy cows.
Occupation be damned! Israel now truly can call itself the Land of Milk and Honey.
But things didn’t come across as so sweet to Bibi’s audience, an informed and impassioned group who follow the prime minister’s every move and weren’t buying his bravado.
“I’ve seen the prime minister many times interact with journalists, diplomats and other officials and I’ve rarely seen him act in such a mean-spirited manner,” an Israeli journalist, who asked not to be named because he covers the prime minister, told me. “He appeared annoyed, arrogant, irritated … and he seemed not interested in what people had to say and what they care about. He just wanted to get his talking points across.”
“He turned our press conference into his press conference,” an Austrian journalist agreed. “He’s the master of the show, not us.”
“I was entertained,” a Dutch television reporter confessed at dinner.
The Americans were thoroughly disgusted. The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt recalled another occasion, many years ago, when Bibi was dismissive of the Jewish press. Rosenblatt said he was in the room for back-to-back press conferences in New York, one for mainstream media and the other for Jewish journalists, and watched Bibi go on a charm offensive for the likes of Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, only to appear listless and gloomy for the Jewish outlets.
How strange that a prime minister who fancies himself “the leader of the Jewish people” would behave so erratically and offensively when he has home-court advantage. Rather than a show of respect and appreciation — he had invited us there, after all — we got a show of swagger and superiority.
“I think for right-wing populists in Europe, Bibi is a sort of role model,” the Austrian journalist said, referring to well-documented ties between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and one of Austria’s far-right political leaders. “Because of his rhetoric, because of his behavior to the press, and [because] he’s survived any scandal that’s ever taken place here.”
If I hadn’t been to the Gaza border earlier that day, on a visit coordinated by Netanyahu’s own government, I might be more excited about the astonishing dairy cows. But Israel still faces real threats and harsh choices. So while there are many reasons to celebrate her wonders, there also are reasons for her leader to show a little modesty.
But instead of destroying golden calves, Bibi has become one. The day of our press conference, Tel Aviv sculptor Itay Zalait erected a 14-foot golden effigy of “King Bibi” in Rabin Square — a statement-making art installation that captured worldwide attention and drew comparisons between Bibi and dictators like Saddam Hussein. The prime minister’s supporters roundly condemned the stunt and the statue was toppled quickly.
But the artist’s point was made: If Bibi is more than merely a modern statesman and sees himself as the leader of the Jewish people, he is heir to the leadership tradition of Moses — who was “more humble than any other person on earth.”
Signing trade deals doesn’t obviate the lessons of Torah.
Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.