by Yaakov Ahimeir
These days, many of us are thinking about newscasters [following the resignation of Yair Lapid and Yaakov Eilon], and especially about who will take a seat at the news desk and who will disappear from our daily routines during prime time. Marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Israel’s sixth Prime Minister Menachem Begin this week also gives us an excuse to focus on the other side of the desk, on the guests who sit opposite the newscasters.
Begin was a master of performance in front of the camera, in his appearances before the nation. Since disappearing from public office until today, he has remained unparalleled in this realm. I have no doubt that this was due, in part, to his sense of being persecuted and from engaging in numerous debates throughout his political career. He argued with his rival Ze’ev Jabontinsky for a short part of his public life and with David Ben-Gurion for many years. This opposition only sharpened Begin’s rhetorical talents in his appearances on television.
One could say that when television broadcasts began airing in Israel, Begin eagerly took on this new media, which quickly spread to households throughout the country. The new technology also helped shape Begin the politician into the prepared and polished man ready for debates that ultimately helped him be elected prime minister. Begin did not need any training or consultations in this realm. He had charisma – a magic touch that could be felt as two people previously unfamiliar with one another faced off.
Did anyone among the masses who came to hear his speeches in city squares know him personally? Even when television broadcasts became routine, Begin remained attached to newspapers, grumbling about criticism he perceived as unjust and even writing articles for the newspaper Herut (Freedom). Although marginal, this is one similarity between Begin and Ben-Gurion, who also wrote articles, sometimes under the pen name S.S. Yariv (standing for Saba Shel Yariv, “the opponent’s grandfather” in Hebrew). Begin did not hide behind pen names. In television interviews, Begin always conquered his interviewer. Whether interviewers, including this writer, asked difficult questions, tried to outsmart him or even play dumb, Begin responded with a sharp, sometimes sarcastic, tongue that often embarrassed his interviewer. At the same time, Begin was always polite, even if his response was tinged with sarcasm, which helped dissolve the charged atmosphere that developed in the studio.
It is worth noting that Begin’s relationship to the press, even abroad, was hostile. His election to office aroused fears, as some commentators had previously characterized him as a war monger and did not shy away from injecting anti-Semitic sentiments into their descriptions of Begin. Begin had been so concerned about his international reception that he dispatched his close associate, Shmuel Katz, to reassure international officials concerned about Begin’s moves. But the media offered Begin praise in the honeymoon period created between Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which produced a peace with Egypt. Even today, veteran journalists such as myself fondly remember that era’s shining star of the small screen.