On January 28th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted what seemed like a hearty endorsement of President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border. “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”
The Mexican government quickly demanded a “clarification” and apology from Netanyahu. Jewish leaders in Mexico published a statement “forcefully rejecting” the PM’s tweet. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin apologized personally to President Enrique Peña Nieto. Netanyahu appeared on TV to criticize the Israeli media, which in his opinion created the crisis: “The leftist media is enlisted in a Bolshevik brainwashing witch hunt against me and my family. They constantly create a deluge of ‘fake news’—there’s no other word for it.” Netanyahu said he was referring to Trump’s praise for the barrier Israel constructed along its border with Egypt to keep out migrants.
In recent weeks, as American journalists tried to figure out how to cover a populist, pugnacious president who dominates the news cycle via Twitter, Israeli journalists have looked on with a sense of recognition. Shaul Amsterdamski, head of the economics desk at the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation, finds many similarities between Trump and Netanyahu. “For both Trump and Netanyahu the media are an unnecessary and often harmful middleman, which can be cut off completely since they are so good on social media.”
Recently Netanyahu, whose Facebook page has almost 2 million followers, launched “Bibi TV”—regular news updates presented by Netanyahu himself, timed to coincide with the evening news. “In Israel, the word ‘lefty’ has been stripped of its original meaning—it now refers to anyone who doesn’t approve of Netanyahu. And he has extraordinary popular support, no matter how many investigations he’s under,” says Amsterdamski.
There are differences. Until recently, Netanyahu served as minister of communication, thus consolidating his regulatory hold on the Israeli media market; unlike Trump, he also enjoys the unalloyed support of Israel’s biggest daily newspaper, Israel Hayom. Nevertheless, having dealt for years with a hostile and obfuscating administration, Israeli journalists are able to offer some insights to their American counterparts.
First, don’t rely on those briefings. This lesson became especially resonant this past Friday, as news outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, and Politico were excluded from attending a White House press briefing. Reuters seems to have seen it coming a month ago. On January 31st, after the contentious debut of Sean Spicer as White House press secretary, Reuters published on its website a missive to its journalists titled “Covering Trump the Reuters Way.” In it, Reuters instructed its reporters to “Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.”
Like Trump, Netanyahu is surrounded by staunch loyalists, who tend to share his suspicion of the media
Israeli journalists have been operating this way for years—though not by choice. The prime minister’s office doesn’t have official, on-the-record briefings for journalists. Netanyahu will sometimes summon certain journalists for off-the-record briefings, but in general “other than just before elections when briefings abound, there is almost no access—unless they decide to pass on information to you,” says Roni Singer, until two months ago the political and Knesset reporter for business daily Calcalist. “Sending them a question is like sending a letter in a bottle. If they feel like it, they will answer; if not—you will never get a response.” The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Netanyahu gives few interviews to Israeli media. Press conferences with the PM are usually given on foreign trips and limited to a couple of questions. “When the PM doesn’t have to answer questions he is not being held accountable and it hurts democracy,” says Tal Schneider, a political journalist and blogger, “but the Israeli public has gotten used to it.” Netanyahu is currently under investigation for several counts of corruption, among them negotiating with a prominent newspaper publisher for favorable coverage in return for legislation. But the only time he answered questions about the investigations was during “Question Hour” at the Knesset, where the interrogators were members of Knesset [MKs] and not journalists.
And so, reporters have to look for information elsewhere. Like Trump, Netanyahu is surrounded by staunch loyalists, who tend to share his suspicion of the media. “There’s no use calling up the people around Netanyahu to try and recruit them as sources—even his spokesman will never just schedule an appointment with a journalist,” say Singer. Her strategy for acquiring sources: hanging around the Knesset cafeteria. “Eat with members of Knesset, find mutual acquaintances and develop informal relationships. Some MKs and ministers go in and out of the prime minister’s office as part of their job, and can also have valuable intel as to what’s going on there.”
However, reporting from behind-the-scenes briefings and off-the-record talks may lead to an over-reliance on anonymous sources. “I have seen American journalists in summit meetings [between international leaders] coming to the media center at 9 a.m. and sitting there until the evening—but often the most talked-about stories would come from the Israeli media,” says Raviv Drucker, investigative reporter and commentator at Channel 10 news. “It is not because we’re better but because often we have a lower threshold for publishing a story, in terms of cross-checking information and insisting on named sources. In my stories I am very conscientious about acquiring documents and emails and cross-checking testimonies, but of course we almost never get official briefings or on-record interviews. Often when foreign reporters call to follow up on one of my stories, I can’t give them the names of any sources to follow up with.”
Since 2011, Drucker has published several investigations of Netanyahu’s conduct, with two recent reports leading to full-blown criminal investigations against the PM and people close to him. Netanyahu in turn has often attacked Drucker personally on social media and in official responses, accusing him of trying to perform a “character assassination of the prime minister and his family.”
Drucker’s investigations have made him a target for threats, at one point prompting the network to consider hiring him a bodyguard, but he discovered that being attacked by the PM had an unexpected upside—which journalists targeted by Trump might also come to enjoy. “Netanyahu has made me a household name and so anyone who has a bone to pick with him comes to me, be it with rumors, little leaks or big ones,” he says. “The result is a large pool of high-quality information on my end. True, some of those sources will not be seen with me in a public or consent to being interviewed on-record—but that has never stopped me from getting good stories.”
The abundance of leaks from Trump’s White House—about everything from the president’s TV habits to nighttime calls to his national security advisor for economics lessons—suggest that talkative dissidents might indeed be found there, too.
How best to react when you—or your news organization—become a target? Drucker says that “when Netanyahu attacks me without any factual basis, I tend to not respond at all. When he tries to impugn my facts, I will correct him publicly.”
Investigative journalism has become increasingly harder to perform in recent years—a lament which would sound familiar to American journalists—but Drucker’s final bit of advice is simple: “Work hard, do a good job and do not be afraid. Try not to become belligerent or go for the jugular because this is not personal, and we will have to continue doing the work even when those people are gone.”