Netanyahu departs for India with diatribe against ‘hostile press’

PM predicts Israeli media will under-cover his week-long trip, says he was shocked by ‘sanctimonious and hypocritical’ criticism of his son

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) and his wife Sara board a plane to fly to Latin America for a 10-day state trip on September 10, 2017. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) and his wife Sara board a plane to fly to Latin America for a 10-day state trip on September 10, 2017. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Departing the country Saturday night for a week-long visit to India, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Israeli media for its “sanctimonious” coverage of a recent scandal involving recordings of his son on a night out at strip clubs. He also offered preemptive criticism of the “hostile press” for what he predicted would be underwhelming coverage of the trip.

Speaking from the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, Netanyahu gave a brief statement about the trip before taking questions from the dozens of journalists joining him.

“On this visit I intend to strengthen bilateral relations even more. This visit is an opportunity to enhance cooperation with a global economic, security, technology and tourism power,” he said. “Indian Prime Minister Modi is a close friend of Israel and of mine and I appreciate the fact that he will accompany me on extensive parts of my visit.”

Asked why Yair Netanyahu, who was initially expected to accompany his parents on the official state visit, would be staying behind in Israel, a noticeably agitated Netanyahu launched into a critique of the public discourse surrounding his son.

“My wife and I stand here as a mother and father to a young son who loves the State of Israel with every fiber of his soul,” he said of his 27-year old son. “I want you to think about how you would feel if [the press] were trampling all over your children with unmitigated cruelty.”

The prime minister said he was not only directing his comments at the media, “but also the public figures who have been sanctimoniously and hypocritically tutting.”

Nonetheless, continued Netanyahu, “many citizens have shown Yair and us warm support.”

“It is particularly touching to see coming in the face of such inhumanity, and I want to tell you then how much we appreciate it,” he said. “You are giving us a lot of strength to continue.”

Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife, Sara, is leading a 130-strong trade delegation to India meant to boost bilateral relations. Their son had been set to leave with them, after having been invited by Indian PM Narendra Modi and securing a visa, Hadashot TV news said Saturday, but was pulled from the delegation at the last minute.

Yair Netanyahu leaves a mediation session at a law firm in Tel Aviv on November 26, 2017.(FLASH90)

The Prime Minister’s Office refused to say whether the sudden change of plans was connected to the emergence of a recording last week of the younger Netanyahu making disparaging comments about women during a night out at Tel Aviv strip clubs with two friends, accompanied by his security guard and a driver.

The recordings, aired by Hadashot on Monday, have been at the top of the Israeli news cycle over the past week.

Yair Netanyahu has called the report on the tape “biased and shameful,” and claimed the recordings were illegally obtained. However, he also apologized for the behavior captured in the recordings.

While Netanyahu said his son was right to apologize, he has attacked the press for airing the tape and said Thursday that the government should take legislative action against the leaking of recordings.

In a Facebook post published an hour before his departure to India, Netanyahu predicted that the public would not hear about the trip due to what he described as the media’s incessant attempts to bring him down and ignore Israel’s successes under his government.

“It will be interesting to see how the hostile media ignores the historic trip or tries to minimize it, as it has done with similar trips in the past,” he said, singling out Hadashot, which he accused of leading an “unprecedented campaign” against his family.

“Spoiler alert,” he wrote. “They will continue to cross all red lines of journalist ethics, fairness and humaneness in their repugnant mudslinging and in their invention of scandals.”

Netanyahu concluded by saying that the media’s “clear interest” was to “crown a left-wing prime minister” to serve its own interests.

Over the past two decades, Netanyahu has repeatedly sought to suppress his perceived detractors in the media, which he considers biased against him. He has long forgone press conferences and interviews with Israeli journalists, and has publicly called out specific stories, reporters and media outlets.

At a number of boisterous rallies held recently in response to media reports and public protests over his alleged corruption, he has lashed out at the media, saying that “the fake news industry is at its peak” and accusing it of “an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family.”

He has also previously lashed out at the Israeli press for not covering his foreign trips extensively enough, as he sees it.

Netanyahu will be the first Israeli prime minister to visit the world’s second-most populous country in 15 years. The last time an Israeli prime minister came to India — a country of 1.3 billion people — was in 2003, when Ariel Sharon arrived but abruptly cut his visit short to return to Israel to deal with a terrorist attack.

A large gaggle of reporters will join him on every stage of the trip.

In contrast with prime ministerial visits to the US or Europe, Netanyahu’s trip, which will take him to three cities in India, will focus very little on Middle Eastern affairs such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, it will deal mostly with efforts to promote trade relations.

The visit is likely to be dominated by footage of Modi’s warm welcome for Netanyahu. The two men have developed a close friendship, congratulating each other on social media on various occasions and embracing each other heartily.

In July 2017, Modi became the first Indian leader to visit the Jewish state, dismissing criticism from many Muslims in India and elsewhere. A photo of Modi and Netanyahu strolling in the sand at Olga beach, in northern Israel, was shared widely.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi visit the water desalination plant at Olga beach on July 6, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Over the course of the visit, Israel and India will sign a series of bilateral agreements, including in the fields of aviation, renewable energy, cybersecurity, alternative medicine, and cinema.

Netanyahu’s entourage, which includes the largest-ever delegation of Israeli businesspeople, is scheduled to land in Delhi on Sunday. Later that day, the prime minister will have an “intimate dinner” with Modi, according to the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu will also meet with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who was in Israel in November.

On Monday, Netanyahu will lay a wreath at Raj Ghat, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, who was a staunch critic of Zionism but who is revered in India as “Father of the Nation.” As is customary, the prime minister will also sprinkle petals on Gandhi’s grave.

During his visit to New Delhi, President Reuven Rivlin sprinkles petals on the tomb of Mahatma Gandhi, November 15, 2016. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

Later that day, Netanyahu and Modi will hold a “private meeting” at the Hyderabad House.

He will also be welcomed by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind in his residence.

On Tuesday, the prime minister’s delegation is flying to Agra, a city in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state that is home to the iconic Taj Mahal mausoleum.

Netanyahu and Modi will then open the Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship annual geopolitical conference. The summit will be attended by senior statespeople from around the world, including the Russian deputy foreign minister and former US nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.

From Delhi, the Israeli delegation will head to Gujarat, Modi’s home state in the country’s west.

On Wednesday, Modi and Netanyahu are set to attend “a number of events concerning agriculture, innovation, water, and entrepreneurship” at Gujarat’s Icreate Centre, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Later that day, the prime minister and his entourage will travel south to Mumbai, where he will meet with members of the local Jewish community.

On Thursday, Netanyahu is set to conduct a “power breakfast” with senior representatives from India’s business community and attend a bilateral business seminar.

Some 130 Israeli businesspeople from the fields of agriculture, water technology, cybersecurity, defense, health, and food industries are joining the prime minister’s trip. It will be headed by the president of the Association of Industrialists in Israel.

Netanyahu will then lay a wreath at a memorial ceremony at the Taj Palace Hotel for the victims of the November 2008 attacks on the city, during which Pakistani Islamists killed 166 people and injured hundreds. From there, he will proceed to Mumbai’s Chabad House, which was one of several sites of the 2008 attack.

Moshe Holtzberg, the son of slain Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, who survived the massacre as a young child, is set to accompany the prime minister to the Chabad House. He will be joined by the family’s nanny, Sandra Samuel, who saved him at the time.

Holtzberg met with Modi during the latter’s visit to Tel Aviv last summer.

On Thursday evening, Netanyahu will attend an event dedicated to Bollywood, India’s famed movie industry. “The Prime Minister will reach out to Bollywood in an exclusive ‘Shalom Bollywood’ event,” Israel’s Embassy in India said in a press release Thursday.

“Bollywood stars have a huge influence in India, and we’re trying to get some of them and some producers to come to the event,” Gilad Cohen, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific, said this week.

An agreement on joint production in cinema will be signed, he said.

On Friday, the delegation will return to Israel, making it home just in time for Shabbat.

Raphael Ahren and Josh Davidovich contributed to this report.

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