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My way or my way: Netanyahu’s PR strategy gamble

In the public relations war over Israel’s judicial overhaul, Bibi sticks with selling himself

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move to transform the Israeli judiciary has spurred unprecedented protests in Israeli boardrooms, in the media and in the streets.

A traditional public relations response might see the leader focus attention on the merits of the judicial overhaul effort, highlighting what is to be gained by the change, or lost by taking no action at all. A traditional public relations plan would prioritize the domestic Israeli audience over outsiders. A traditional public relations approach might assume that earned media — media coverage that is not paid for, as it’s precipitated by breaking news — is the most credible messenger.

But that’s not Netanyahu’s approach to leadership, to PR or to marketing his policy decisions. Seeking to sell his position on judicial overhaul, Netanyahu has doubled down on his favorite strategy: selling himself as an unassailable world leader. Love me, love my position. Oppose my position, oppose me. Many Israelis know the subtext: Oppose me at your political peril.

Me, me, me

The arrogance of leadership is most clearly on display when a political leader’s “I” statements are too close together. When the first word in any policy statement is “I,” and when all issues are mediated by “me, my, mine,” it is a telltale sign that the leader’s strategy to win favor for his policies is to focus attention on himself and his leadership.

Listen to Netanyahu as he left office in 2021: “I am standing here in the name of millions of citizens who have chosen to be upstanding and not to bow their heads down. I am standing here as an elected public servant. There’s over a million Israeli citizens who voted for the Likud, headed by me, and another million citizens who voted for right-wing parties, knowing that they would be part of a government headed by me.

Bibi repeatedly uses his power to appear infallible at home, open-minded abroad and willing to take any action needed to overcome the opposition. This approach energizes his supporters, and eschews his naysayers.

Energizing his base

Netanyahu recognizes the limitations of trying to change the minds of his opponents, so he doesn’t even try. He knows that his most powerful public relations strategy is to simply amplify the voices of his supporters and let them proselytize on his behalf. 

He is selective in choosing the channels they listen to and the social media platforms they dominate. He targets his message to his supporters knowing they will share it with their friends, colleagues and contacts. The prime minister’s supporters function as trusted sources of credible news to their social media connections. And in the current divisive political climate when traditional media is held suspect, that’s the right approach. After all, in an era when people feel they can’t trust anyone who doesn’t already agree with them, the remaining source of truth is one’s friends.

Allies overseas 

When the public pressure in Israel gets too hot, the protests too loud and the opposition too prominent, Netanyahu does not engage his opponents in debate — he simply moves the podium. Facing criticism at home for his judicial policies, Netanyahu pivots to an international audience, appearing on podcasts that his supporters follow (Bari Weiss and Jordan Peterson for example), conducting interviews with friendly hosts and meeting with like-minded political leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary, who often face pushback for their own divisive policies.

The Israeli prime minister strategically uses foreign media opportunities to elevate his image as a leader. He reminds his supporters that he’s the strong leader of a country that enjoys unwavering support in certain U.S. communities — reenforcing the idea that massive protests over the judiciary issue will not impact decades of strong relationships between Israel and the United States. It doesn’t matter that the move has already caused an outcry among many U.S. senators and members of Congress — Netanyahu knows his supporters back home won’t listen to those folks anyway.

This public relations strategy is fully at play when he burnishes his image abroad while his supporters and opponents battle it out at home. He knows his visceral appeal as a strong leader can find friendly audiences in countries where nationalism movements have taken hold, so he announces a visit with Turkey’s president and appears on Good Morning America, in a segment wedged between stories about getting engaged on Instagram.

Netanyahu is Israel

Will an appearance on U.S. morning television really change the dialogue or advance a debate on the issue? The answer: It doesn’t matter. 

An illustration of Netanyahu's July interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer
An illustration of Netanyahu’s July interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Illustration by Avi Katz

The mere appearance on national TV in the U.S., no matter how vapid, is a win for Netanyahu simply because it muddies the waters. He’s won the debate without even having to acknowledge there is one. He’s reframed the issue and made it personal: “Oppose me and you oppose Israel.” It’s a battle cry his supporters endorse and amplify across social media.

That’s really the only message that’s important. It’s the message his supporters want to hear, and because he doesn’t (and they don’t) care about his opponents, it’s the only message he has to deliver.

In public relations speak: He’s won simply by “owning” the narrative.

It’s a strategy that has worked for the prime minister in the past. In fact, he’s built his political career on it. Still, the current stakes are as high as they’ve ever been for Bibi. Whether he will succeed this time, only time will tell.

To contact the authors, email [email protected].

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