Mastery of the media propelled Netanyahu to power, his attempts to control it might be his downfall

The corruption charges swirling around Benjamin Netanyahu continue to gather pace unrelentingly, even as the Israeli Prime Minister was treated like a rock star at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington D.C.

Having previously been the least talked about of the cases facing the embattled Prime Minister, it could be that the investigation involving the Bezeq telecoms firm and Walla news, that leads to the end of the Netanyahu era.

The situation escalated when longstanding Netanyahu associate Shlomo Filber signed a state’s witness agreement on 20 February, meaning he will give evidence against the Prime Minister. Netanyahu allegedly urged Filber, then Director General of the Communications Ministry, to promote regulations to aid the parent company in return for positive coverage in Walla news. Now Nir Hefetz, long-time media representative of the Netanyahu family, has signed a similar agreement relating to that case and others.

It should actually come as no surprise that the Bezeq case is the one puts him under the most pressure. He has long been a media obsessive. Early on in his career, he learned how to put in perfect media performances, deploying slick soundbites and perfect English to rise to prominence during the Gulf War and as Israel’s Ambassador to the UN. As Ben Caspit, author of an explosive new Netanyahu biography, told Fathom:

“Netanyahu really understood how to make the most of media. He is the first who began to check different TV angles, and to prepare soundbites. While others were preparing long speeches in response to events, Bibi became an expert in the use of ‘inserts’. He didn’t just learn this from his time in New York as an Israeli diplomat. He grew up in America, where television was a lot more sophisticated than in Israel, and he understood how TV often sets the agenda. Out of all the politicians, Bibi is the only one who knows at every single moment where the camera is that is shooting him.”

However, like many politicians around the world, particularly those that have been at the top for a long time, Netanyahu clearly finds it hard to handle negative press. He has long thought that much of the traditional media is against him and has happily attacked it as biased towards the left.

Specifically, while he relied heavily on the media during the 1999 election campaign he accused it of trying to bring him down and blames it for his defeat to Ehud Barak.  Former senior Israeli diplomat and sometime Yediot Ahronot contributor Alon Pinkas told the Atlantic: “Netanyahu thought his loss [in 1999] wasn’t a result of policy, credibility or character flaws. He attributed the loss to a comprehensive campaign that Yediot supposedly wages against him. It became an obsession for him.”

This goes a long way to explaining Netanyahu’s subsequent support for the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom which has backed him vociferously.  In a separate investigation, Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of asking Yediot Ahronot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes for better media coverage, by offering to restrict circulation of Israel Hayom, its major rival.

What makes Netanyahu’s obsession with bringing individual outlets onside particularly hard to understand is that he already has a hugely powerful public voice by virtue of his office. Not only does he have ready access to individual journalists and media outlets, he also has a huge presence across social media. Netanyahu has 2.2m “Likes” on Facebook, 1.3m Twitter followers and his videos on YouTube attract thousands of views.

By comparison, British Prime Minister Theresa May, the leader of a country of nearly 66m people, has 479,000 followers on Twitter and 456,000 Likes on Facebook. Netanyahu leads a country of just 9m. Elsewhere in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just half a million more Facebook Likes than him but leads a country of nearly 83m people. In Israel, Yesh Atid Leader Yair Lapid has just over 426,000 “Likes” on Facebook, while Labour leader Avi Gabbay has fewer than 63,000.

Having changed how Israeli politicians interact with media in the television age, Netanyahu has the ability to bypass the media to a far greater extent than any of his domestic rivals in the digital age. It, therefore, seems somewhat illogical that critical headlines, however constant and aggressive, should cause him such consternation. It certainly does not seem worth risking a conviction for corruption.

With the calls for his resignation growing louder by the day, and formerly loyal aides abandoning him, this escalating crisis for the Prime Minister shows that while his obsession with the media projected Netanyahu to power, the same obsession could be his downfall.

Charlotte Henry is Senior Press Officer at BICOM.