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On a bike, on a jet ski, climbing Masada — the sporty Bibi gets his TV special

by Simone Wilson

February 26, 2014 | 3:57 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and U.S. travel journalist Peter Greenberg cycled down the Jaffa promenade in one of the final scenes of “Israel: The Royal Tour.” Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife (right), said it was the first time she’d seen her husband ride a bike. Photo by Simone Wilson

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and U.S. travel journalist Peter Greenberg cycled down the Jaffa promenade in one of the final scenes of “Israel: The Royal Tour.” Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife (right), said it was the first time she’d seen her husband ride a bike. Photo by Simone Wilson

“Can you get me a sandwich?” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said aloud to no one in particular in the film crew as he emerged from the back of an SUV, stepping into a bright, egg-yolk-hued sunset over Jaffa, Israel. A swarm of security dudes in sunglasses and secret-service earphones immediately closed in behind him. “Lo humus” (“no hummus”), the prime minister added over his shoulder.

Netanyahu had come to shoot a scene with CBS travel editor Peter Greenberg — one of the last in a grueling week of shoots for “Israel: The Royal Tour,” the long-anticipated special set to air on U.S. public television beginning March 6. This will be the latest in the “Royal Tour” series, in which Greenberg tours various countries — including Jordan, Mexico, Peru, Jamaica and New Zealand — with each country’s head of state as his guide.

For the Jaffa scene, Greenberg walked along a beach promenade with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as the trio admired the Tel Aviv skyline rising to the north and the Mediterranean shimmering to the west.

“When I first came here, there were no high-rises in Tel Aviv,” Greenberg tells the Netanyahus in the final cut.

The prime minister responds, coolly: “Well, that’s actually what my son told me. He was 5 years old, and he said, ‘Daddy, we don’t have a skyline!’ And I said, ‘Relax, kid. I’ll get you a skyline.’ ”

The Jaffa set had been pretty chaotic for the half-hour before Netanyahu’s arrival. Public-relations people from the Tel Aviv municipality, a bunch of extras on Segways who thought they were about to shoot a commercial for the Ministry of Tourism, and a couple of Israeli news crews darted about aimlessly, waiting for the prime minister’s motorcade to crawl through rush-hour traffic. Armed men, dressed in black, started to appear on hilltops overlooking the promenade. Greenberg himself paced nervously in a nearby parking lot, dealing with a helicopter problem for the scene at Masada the next day. “Let’s get this thing solved, man, right now!” he said into his cell phone.

When the SUV carrying the prime minister finally pulled up, chaos exploded into pure star-struck energy. Much to the crowd’s delight, after walking the promenade, Netanyahu and Greenberg hopped on two green bicycles, part of Tel Aviv’s prized bike-share program, and began to race.

“Hey guys, I hope you’re getting him on the bicycle, because that was totally unexpected — we won’t get that again,” John Feist, the show’s director, shouted at his cameramen.

The normally stony-faced prime minister, a gargoyle of strength for Israel and a divisive figure in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, seemed to embrace this breezy, candid persona he was shaping for American TV. After the bike race, he said to Greenberg: “You have to come here once a year and we do this program, so I get out — ride a bike, run a jet ski, have some fun!” (A few days before, they’d gone jet skiing on the Sea of Galilee.)

Sara Netanyahu agreed — as long as no soccer was involved.

She was referring to the ankle pop heard round the nation in June 2012, when the “Royal Tour” first began filming: On an outing to a soccer match between Arab and Jewish youth, Netanyahu sprained his ankle while taking a penalty shot.

“When he came to the United Nations and he had this special speech where he showed the [illustration of the Iranian] bomb, he was actually limping, but nobody saw it,” Greenberg said in an interview with the Journal while driving on the freeway from Jerusalem to Jaffa.


Netanyahu and Greenberg on Masada at sunrise. Photo by Tina Hager, courtesy of WNET New York Public Media

With its star in a leg cast, the “Royal Tour” was forced to pack up and fly home. However, Netanyahu and Greenberg picked up where they left off the following summer — rafting, jet skiing, boating, hiking, driving and bicycling across Israel.

“His own security guard looked at me and said, ‘We have never, ever seen him like this,’ ” Greenberg said. “He and I went on dune buggies together, and he was driving like a madman. It’s great television.”

Although the Ministry of Tourism has taken credit for luring Greenberg to Israel, he said the segment was entirely his idea and was initiated through a friend of a friend who knew the prime minister.

No doubt, Israel stands to benefit from the show in a big way: According to Greenberg, tourism went up almost 20 percent in Jordan after his “Royal Tour” with King Abdullah II in 2002 and rose almost 10 percent in Mexico, Peru and Jamaica after his tours in those countries. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has predicted a boost of about 200,000 tourists thanks to Greenberg’s show, infusing an extra $285 million into the Israeli economy.

“Everyone who sees a program by Peter Greenberg, who is well known in the travel community — it’s going to be a major revelation, and hopefully it will lead to the creation of Israel as a desirable destination,” said Scott Feinerman, director of clergy and travel industry relations at the Ministry of Tourism’s office in Los Angeles.

Greenberg sees “Israel: The Royal Tour” as a chance for the world to get to know the nation through the eyes of its leader. However, he draws a firm line between travel reporting and PR: He said there has been “truly a separation of church and state” between him and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, which was not allowed to review the final cut.

“It’s not my job to promote Israel — that’s the job of advertisers,” Greenberg said. “If I’m doing my job right, it’s to present it in a way that’s credible and that’s real. You have two guys, like two guys on a road trip, and one of them just happens to be the prime minister. And he and I are talking to each other, like you and I are talking to each other. It humanizes the country.”

Although Greenberg succeeded in helping the prime minister let loose a little, chronic Israel critics are sure to attack the show for avoiding more contested parts of the country. Unlike food critic Anthony Bourdain, another half-Jewish TV journalist who toured Israel last year and covered all his bases — Gaza, the West Bank, the settlements — the closest Greenberg comes to controversy is when he enjoys a cheese pastry called kanafeh in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, sans prime minister.

“Look, there will be people out there who say I was too hard, and there will be a lot of people saying I was too soft. But that’s not what the show’s about,” Greenberg said.

At the beginning of the episode, Greenberg does sit down with Netanyahu for an eight-minute interview that addresses the elephant in the room: the Israel-Palestine conflict. “Every time I’ve come to this region, and I bring up the notion of peace, someone always says, ‘It’s not the right time in the Middle East’…,” Greenberg says. “So I have to ask you: When is it ever going to be the right time?”

Netanyahu’s response, in part: “I think when I bring a peace agreement to the people of Israel, they’ll believe me. Because they trust me to take care of that foundation of peace, which is: You can’t have peace without security in the Middle East. It won’t hold for a day. I’m a great champion of peace through strength. I insist on the strength; therefore, I can get the peace.”


The Israeli prime minister’s son, 23-year-old Yair Netanyahu (right), explained the Tel Aviv party circuit to visiting journalist Peter Greenberg. “We start the night around 1 or 2 [a.m.],” he said. “This is really early, so you call this the pre-game.” Photo by Simone Wilson

From there, the show takes a turn toward feel-good and never slows down. Netanyahu leads Greenberg to check out emerging technologies at Technion (“Israel’s MIT”), swim with wild dolphins in the Red Sea, raft the Jordan River, touch the little-known underground section of the Western Wall, climb the Masada fortress in the middle of the Negev desert and float in the Dead Sea.

“It’s best between the scenes,” said Mark Feist, the show’s lead sound guy, who was hooked up to Netanyahu’s feed. “When the mics are running off-camera, he gets really pushy.”

The shoot also coincided with a tense period of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, so Greenberg got to witness some residual state matters. “When I’m with Netanyahu, he’s on the phone taking a call from [U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry] at least once a day,” Greenberg said. “He and I have had a number of back-channel conversations about the issue.”

In front of the camera, though, Netanyahu never seems to fully let down his guard; ultimately, he remains the hard-to-pin-down politician the world knows him as. In a definitive Vanity Fair piece called “The Netanyahu Paradox” from 2012, reporter David Margolick called the prime minister of Israel “compulsively cautious” and “both its strongest and its weakest leader in memory.” Aside from revealing his more goofy, sporty side, the “Royal Tour” episode doesn’t do much to clear up the Netanyahu enigma. His one-liners often come off as slightly canned — perhaps because some were shot multiple times to avoid any stumbles in conversation.

On July 7, after filming a couple of scenes in Jaffa, the group headed to Vicky Cristina, a high-end, Barcelona-inspired bar on the edge of Tel Aviv.

“It’s become just a hub — it’s a high-tech city, fashion city, culture city,” Netanyahu says of Tel Aviv at the bar.

Upon arrival, the prime minister and his wife did a slow lap around Vicky Cristina to the tune of a lively Spanish guitar, posing for cell-phone pictures and shaking hands. And when they finally settled down at the bar, Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s 23-year-old son, showed up to order a round of elaborate pink cocktails and talk about his area of expertise: Tel Aviv nightlife.

Yair, not as practiced a politician as his father, spoke freely, giving some context to Tel Aviv by critiquing its neighbors (“We’re surrounded by countries that stone people and execute women”) and lending some insight into Birthright (“All the Americans come here because you can drink when you’re 18”). 

But any indiscrete comments were cut from the episode — as was a midnight visit to a club next door. After Netanyahu and his wife headed home, Yair and a group of good-looking girls led Greenberg to a V.I.P. table for a few rounds of shots. 

It was an Israeli tabloid’s dream — not in small part because the group of clubgoers included Sandra Leikanger, a Norwegian college mate of Yair, who would later see her face plastered across the Hebrew media when she was outed as his non-Jewish girlfriend. (“She’s great,” Greenberg said of meeting Leikanger. “I think anybody should be able to date anybody they want.”) Hanging back in the crowd, Yair’s bodyguard, who did not give his name, said his job often consisted of staying out until dawn at nightclubs to keep an eye on his young boss.

But Greenberg and the crew soon left the youngsters to their own devices, as they were on a tight schedule: They had to be at Masada in a few hours for a sunrise shoot. “Nobody slept at all. It was pure adrenaline,” Greenberg later said.

The next morning, at the historical site of the Jews’ last stand against the Romans, the crew would film their opening shot for “Israel: The Royal Tour” — a swirling aerial view of Netanyahu standing atop the fortress, looking out across the Negev. Goldberg narrates: “He’s a man who lives and breathes the past and future of his people. And now, he leads his nation as it faces one of the most critical crossroads in its history.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attend the Los Angeles premiere of “Israel: The Royal Tour” on March 4, after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. The show will begin airing on public television throughout the United States on March 6. 

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