As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boarded a plane to fly to Washington, D.C. on Sunday, he explained his trip to a crowd of reporters. "I am leaving for an important trip to the US," Netanyahu said. "I will meet President Obama, and we will discuss Iran and the diplomatic process. I will stand firm on Israel's vital interests, first and foremost security."
Netanyahu's comments at the airport were carefully stage-managed. Despite a large number of journalists there, questions were apparently not allowed. There was no broader discussion of his plans, no chance to grill him on the latest developments in domestic politics, no-back-and-forth at all. For Israeli journalists, this has become a frustratingly familiar situation: The new normal, it seems.
For more than a year, Netanyahu has avoided interviews, news conferences, and round tables with Israel's Hebrew media. Most journalists' interactions with the prime minister were limited to the pre-prepared statements sent out several times a week, and occasional off-the-record talks. Now these journalists are starting to wonder why, exactly, are they getting the cold shoulder?
For example, Israel's Channel 2 recently broadcast a segment on Netanyahu's radio silence, pointing out that in 2013 alone, Obama gave 95 interviews to domestic media, and even Russian President Vladimir Putin found time for five. The Times of Israel has noted that Netanyahu's last real domestic interview was on Jan. 19, 2013 -- just a few days before Israel's last general election. Netanyahu also apparently made a brief cameo on “Eretz Nehederet," Israel's version of "Saturday Night Live," back in April, but dodged the one serious question he was asked.
A few weeks ago Tal Schneider, a political blogger and former Washington, D.C. correspondent for Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv, started an online stopwatch counting down the time since Netanyahu's last domestic interview. At the time of writing, it stands at one year and 42 days. Schneider herself has experience with Netanyahu's style for handling the media: three months after the last Israeli election, she asked the prime minister's office for a sit-down interview with Netanyahu. Instead, she was offered a four-minute, off-the-record walk with the prime minister.
"What can you ask while you walk with the PM for 4 minutes?" Schneider explained in an e-mail. "I brought up the only question that was useful in such an informal quick opportunity which was – why don't you talk to the press?" As Schneider's interview was off-the-record, she cannot reveal the answer.
Perhaps what's strangest about Netanyahu's lack of engagement with the domestic media is that he seems very comfortable with the international media, both at home and abroad: His October visit to the United States included an interview with CNN, and this trip will likely feature a number of media appearances. It's certainly true that Netanyahu's relationship with his domestic audience can, at times, be testy – as evidenced by the number of memes that have sprung up ridiculing his behavior – and he's often made fun of for extravagances. However, as Netanyahu is fond of recalling, Israel is one of the few real democracies in the Middle East, and his lack of interviews can easily be perceived as a gap in accountability.
"While he does enough foreign press, we were not able to ask him any questions on record [regarding the] housing crisis here, the huge leap in cost of living in last 5 years, the national draft law, the health care system crisis, and more," Schneider explains. "Obviously I do not expect foreign press to have interest in those issue. Hence, while foreign press keep asking about Iran, the PM do not speak with the Israeli people on any other subject."