The dominant strategy among world leaders has been gaudy flattery. Foreign governments have exploited Trump’s tendency to conflate the way they treat him with the way they treat the United States. Vox’s Zeeshan Aleem offered some examples. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given Trump a $4,000-golden golf club, insisted that Trump’s golf game is far superior to his own, and presented the president with a hat festooned with the words (in gold thread, of course): Donald & Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater. Xi Jinping, the president of China, made Trump the first U.S. president to dine in the Forbidden City. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has appealed to Trump’s love of military pageantry by making him a guest of honor at Bastille Day. In Riyadh, the Saudis projected Trump’s face onto the side of a hotel.
Washington politicos, however, can’t dazzle Trump with exotic splendor. Instead, many have pursued a different strategy: Appearances on television. Trump, The Washington Post noted, has been “hiring people who’ve been auditioning on television.” From John Bolton to Larry Kudlow to Anthony Scaramucci, Time observed, Trump “Keeps Hiring Cable TV Pundits.” Saying things on cable news that Trump likes to hear has become a proven path to a job in his administration. It’s also become a good way of influencing policy, since Trump often recycles ideas he hears on Fox.
Which brings us to Netanyahu’s presentation. It’s the first example of a foreign leader using television to sway Trump in the way American politicians and pundits do. Most foreign leaders lack the linguistic and cultural fluency to speak to Trump like a Fox News contributor does. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has been preparing for that role his entire adult life.
Netanyahu’s political career is as much a product of television as Trump’s. In 1982, at the age of 33, he arrived in Washington as the Israeli embassy’s political attaché. American journalists were challenging Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Then, as now, America was led by a president who didn’t read much. So Netanyahu, blessed with the fluent English he learned as a high-school student outside Philadelphia, made himself a TV star. In their 1998 book, Netanyahu: The Road to Power, Israeli journalists Ben Caspit and Ilan Kfir write that Netanyahu often rented television cameras and a television spotlight, turning his living room into a makeshift studio. Netanyahu’s then-wife, Fleur, “was the interviewer and Bibi had to reply … Afterward, they would run through the tapes and analyze how Bibi responded.” Since his boss, the Israeli ambassador, preferred to work behind the scenes, Netanyahu quickly became Israel’s face in the United States. He grew friendly with Larry King, Charlie Rose, and Ted Koppel, in particular, on whose show he appeared so frequently that, according to Vanity Fair, “wags began referring to ‘Ted Netanyahu’ and ‘Bibi Koppel.’” When Netanyahu moved to New York to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, he sought out a speech consultant named Lilyan Wilder, who often critiqued his performances on Nightline with Koppel.