Aron Heller
Associated Press
March 30, 2011 - 12:00am

Israel's prime minister, who has long had rocky relations with the news media, took his message straight to the public Wednesday on YouTube, fielding questions in a live interview from users in 90 countries, including Arab nations that have no relations with the Jewish state.

Benjamin Netanyahu's appearance on YouTube's World View Project highlighted the Israeli leader's recent embrace of new media, but also illustrated his tricky relations with the traditional outlets he often considers hostile.

Like other politicians around the world, Netanyahu actively uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to communicate with the public. His office maintains an active website and bombards journalists with text messages and e-mailed press releases.

But since taking office in 2009, he also has canceled the prime minister's traditional holiday interviews with the country's main newspapers and rarely holds news conferences.

Instead, he tends to make major announcements at staged events where journalists can't ask questions, as he did this week in naming a new chief for Israel's Shin Bet internal security service.

"He doesn't want to deal with uncomfortable questions and he doesn't like to be interrupted," said Nam Barren, the country's pre-eminent political columnist at the Yediot Ahronot daily. "There is no dialogue anymore. It's become a monologue, with no back and forth,"

Netanyahu's shunning of the media is ironic, since he has a reputation as a slick, charismatic interviewee. He is telegenic and speaks fluent American English.

Netanyahu's rocky relations with the Israeli media came to a fore this week when he sued Channel 10 TV and the Maariv daily for libel over reports he accepted expensive flights, hotels and restaurant meals paid for by wealthy associates. Netanyahu has said he committed no wrongdoing.

Netanyahu answered two sets of questions, one in Hebrew the other in English, that lasted half an hour each.

The questions from the Israeli audience focused mostly on domestic and security issues.

Responding to a question about protests in Syria, Netanyahu said: "I would be happy if Syria would be democratic. We have nothing to fear from democracy in the Middle East, democracy is not the enemy of peace."

He said upheaval in the Arab world is positive if it leads to democracy, but it would have a devastating affect on the world if Iran-backed militants prevail.

Asked about a Palestinian engineer who disappeared in Ukraine and later surfaced in an Israeli jail, Netanyahu said, "He is a Hamas member, held legally in Israeli detention." Netanyahu added, "He delivered important information," without elaborating.

Netanyahu's relations with foreign journalists been touchy. He took only four questions at his annual meeting with foreign correspondents in January — an event marred by invasive strip searches of some journalists by security guards as they entered the event.

Earlier this month, Israel squandered a potential public relations coup when journalists invited to observe an arms ship the navy seized in the Mediterranean Sea were kept waiting in the sun for three hours because of Netanyahu's security detail.

Wednesday's appearance on YouTube's World View Project provided Netanyahu an outlet with far fewer pitfalls. He's the third world leader to appear on the program, following President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Questions were selected from more than 3,670 queries submitted by YouTube users from nearly 90 countries, including from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, and voted on by others.

The questions, published ahead of time, included his handling of the issue of a captured Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants, the impasse in negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel's West Bank settlement building and the recent upheavals in the Middle East.

Netanyahu's office insisted it was not trying to get around the traditional media.

"We understand the importance of new media in the modern world — it allows the prime minister to speak to the people without filters, so that people can ask him question without filters," said spokesman Mark Regev. "But I don't think that it has to come at the expense of the traditional media."

Danny Zaken, chairman of Israel's press association, thinks it has.

"He's constantly trying to find ways to bypass us," he said. "We believe that every public servant should make himself available to journalists and their questions."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017