In Cyprus, an atypically jovial Netanyahu unveils his new charm offensive

PM is riding the widespread outrage over migrant violence in Tel Aviv to patch up his image, and apparently turning his back on the judicial overhaul to win a coveted Biden sit-down

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the media before a meeting with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides at the presidential palace in Nicosia, Cyprus, September 3, 2023. (Petros Karadjias/AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the media before a meeting with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides at the presidential palace in Nicosia, Cyprus, September 3, 2023. (Petros Karadjias/AP)

When he arrived in Cyprus Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed in especially high spirits. He couldn’t stop smiling, and was uncharacteristically gracious toward the journalists and other people around him.

Before boarding the plane, he even replied to reporters’ questions rather than just delivering his customary hurried statement.

His wife, Sara, also chose to speak to the press, denying publicly that the threatened ouster of Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan has anything to do with Dayan inviting singer Keren Peles – a critic of some of the government’s policies – to perform at a remembrance ceremony.

“Fake news,” the Netanyahus proclaimed, almost in unison.

On the plane, too, the prime minister was in a jolly mood. Though the flight to Larnaca is extremely short, he took time to chat with the journalists on board, something he has avoided doing in all of his recent flights.

The aura of good cheer seemed to follow Netanyahu throughout the day – during his meeting with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, at the various state functions and later, of course, in his swanky hotel in Limassol, an hour’s drive away.

Sara Netanyahu and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to the press from the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on September 3, 2023. (Carrie-Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

There are two likely explanations for Netanyahu’s transformation. One is that his legitimacy among broad swaths of the public has hit rock bottom, and thus he is now trying to rehabilitate his image, especially vis-à-vis the media. This charm offensive, which includes his trip to Cyprus, has been noted by several people in his inner circle.

Another possible explanation is that Netanyahu is finding himself at the heart of a rare consensus after Eritrean migrants rioting in the streets of Tel Aviv over the weekend made right- and left-wing Israelis equally mortified.

Netanyahu was able, for a change, to adopt a stance of single-minded toughness toward the protesters; he promised to deport them – including during his informal chat with the journalists on his plane – and received almost wall-to-wall support for the measure.

The fracas in Tel Aviv also afforded the prime minister an opportunity to rehabilitate his image with some alternative facts. Students of history will recall that in April 2018 Netanyahu hatched a scheme, in cooperation with the United Nations and several European nations, that would have seen at least half of the African migrants seeking asylum in Israel resettled abroad.

Though he initially feted the deal as a landmark achievement, within hours he suspended the move, and soon canceled it entirely, after the right heaped intense criticism on him for agreeing to let some migrants remain and receive temporary status in the country.

On Sunday, five years after the fact, the prime minister completely disavowed the plan, to the point of pretending that he had nothing to do with it.

“The UN plan would have provided citizenship to 16,000 illegal infiltrators and would have created a huge incentive for hundreds of thousands if not millions of Africans to once again come charging into Israel, so it was a bad solution,” he claimed, later adding that the plan “would have been a disaster, had we accepted.”

Eritrean migrants who oppose and support that country’s regime clash in south Tel Aviv, September 2, 2023 (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

In any event, sources in Netanyahu’s circle are claiming that any plan to deport Eritreans would be dead in the water because the High Court would torpedo it. The prime minister himself told The Times of Israel that he hoped “the judges will change their minds.”

When it comes to the justices of the Supreme Court and the government’s deeply divisive judicial overhaul program, Netanyahu and his allies have arrived at several interesting assessments and conclusions.

They claim that the fateful September 12 High Court hearing on the government-sponsored law – the only segment of the overhaul so far enshrined in law – to curtail judicial review on the basis of the reasonableness yardstick will end with a decisive decision to strike down the legislation.

Netanyahu has already indicated that he will abide by any decision of the court, rather than trigger an unprecedented constitutional crisis. “The question of obeying won’t be on the agenda, and if there will be a debate regarding some appointment or other, the High Court can decide whatever it wants,” one source close to the prime minister said.

In general, Netanyahu’s inner circle seems to be trying to convince people that, in practice, the overhaul is over and done with. “The reform is dead,” his confidants are saying, though the statement doesn’t jibe with the messaging coming from Justice Minister Yariv Levin and his many followers, both within and outside the Likud party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (R) at the Knesset on June 7, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

If Netanyahu is climbing down, or at least trying to create the impression of a climbdown, on the overhaul, his foremost goal is to win the privilege of a high-profile meeting with US President Joe Biden.

Such a sit-down, according to sources close to the prime minister, would take place in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly later this month. They also swear that, during the two men’s last phone conversation, Biden invited Netanyahu to the Oval Office, and if the meeting doesn’t end up taking place there, they say, it is only due to the tight Jewish holiday schedule.

Weeks ago, these sources already marked the person they claim is the true culprit in the ongoing saga of Netanyahu’s missing White House invitation: former president Barack Obama, who supposedly is unwilling to bury the hatchet and forgive the prime minister for publicly sparring with him all those years ago.

A version of this article first appeared on The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, Zman Yisrael.

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