Benjamin Netanyahu: The Joe Isuzu of the Middle East Media Wars

Article excerpt

Like General Norman Schwarzkopf or CNN's Peter Arnett, he became one of the Gulf war's instant superstars. Many American television viewers will probably have no problem recognizing his boyish smile and accented English, although they might confuse him with either a character on a commercial or a member of a soap-opera cast. The Washington Times suggested that if any Emmy Award had been given for the Gulf war's best television performance, Benjamin Netanyahu, in all certainty, would have received it.

Indeed, the deputy Israeli foreign minister, known as "Bibi" to such buddies as Bill Safire of The New York Times, became during the war, for all intents and purposes, the Cable News Network's bureau chief in Jerusalem. With Peter Arnett, CNN's official Israel correspondent, spending the war in Baghdad, Netanyahu was able to dominate that network's airtime from Israel with Likud-oriented news-bites.

According to a March 1991 story in the Washingtonian, a Palestine Liberation Organization official phoned CNN's headquarters in Atlanta during the first week of the war. "This Israeli has been on the air for more than half an hour," he fumed, referring to Netanyahu. "CNN is becoming a propagandist for the Israelis."

Ironically, only a year ago, in the midst of the Palestinian uprising, the Likud government launched a dirty and successful campaign against CNN, accusing two of its former staff members in Israel, Jerusalem Bureau Chief Robert Weiner and correspondent Michael Greenspan, of "anti-Israel" news coverage of the intifada. The anti-CNN campaign, during which Weiner and Greenspan were branded as "self-hating Jews," was joined by several American Jewish organizations, led by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. It resulted in the firing of Greenspan and the reassignment of Weiner. "The hostile journalists of CNN are finally going home," announced a bold headline in Israel's daily, Yediot Aharonot.

As the Iraqi Scuds hit Israel, the tamed CNN reporters seemed to be on the Likud's payroll. With screaming sirens and explosions in the sky providing the sound and lights, Netanyahu's CNN appearances were a Hollywood producer's dream. Occasionally wearing a gas mask to heighten the drama, "Bibi" did not miss an opportunity to chastise the PLO and its ties with Saddam, to explain why the Scud attacks demonstrated that Israel would have to remain in the West Bank and Gaza, and to celebrate the American-Israeli "strategic alliance."

With Netanyahu, the American television viewer was provided with someone who looks and sounds "like us," and who markets a tried-and-true product: Israel, the American ally, securing Washington's interests in the Middle East against radical Soviet-Arab-Muslim terrorist bogeymen. Indeed, to those familiar with the lying pitchman in the Japanese car maker's television commercial, Netanyahu has become the Joe Isuzu of the Middle Eastern media wars.

Familiar with television's need for "good copy" and with American cultural codes, Netanyahu constructed a contradiction in terms: a Likud with a human face. The American television viewer does not have to face such realities of the Likud policies as the violent suppression of the Palestinian population and the long-term plans of annexing the Arab territories and expelling their population to the "Palestinian state" of Jordan. With a few simplistic slogans, Netanyahu suggests that happy days are here again, as far as the American-Israeli relationship is concerned. The Soviet menace has disappeared, but there are, thank God, new villains that, together, Israel and the United States can contain, such as Islamic fundamentalism and Saddam Hussain.

Since CNN's signals can be received in offices and apartment buildings in Israel, a side effect of Netanyahu's appearances was the raising of his popularity in Israel and of his political fortunes in the Likud Party. After all, as many Israeli politicians have found out, the road to the Israeli prime minister's office runs through New York and Washington. …