Netanyahu leaves troubles at home for worry-free, achievement-less Lisbon visit
Reporter's notebook

Netanyahu leaves troubles at home for worry-free, achievement-less Lisbon visit

PM’s 48-hour trip to the far-side of Europe included just two meetings and plenty of ‘no comments.’ It’ll probably take some time before the real reason for the trip is revealed

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa meet at the Sao Bento palace in Lisbon, December 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa meet at the Sao Bento palace in Lisbon, December 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

LISBON, Portugal — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose a precarious time to leave the country. He is knee-deep in legal troubles, with three indictments against him pending, and has to decide whether to ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity from prosecution. There is also only one week left before the Knesset automatically dissolves, sending the country into an unprecedented third round of elections inside a year. And then there is MK Gideon Sa’ar, who is challenging him for the leadership of the Likud party with increasing aggressiveness.

Why he chose to fly five-and-half hours to the far end of Europe for only two meetings — one Wednesday evening with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and one with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Thursday — remains unclear.

The public comments Netanyahu made before his sit-down with Pompeo offered few, if any new insights — he called for increased economic pressure on Iran and indicated that he wouldn’t mind if Iranian protesters toppled the regime. No surprises there.

And the meeting with Costa, the socialist prime minister of a country Netanyahu has not paid much attention to in recent years — to put it mildly — was more of a courtesy call.

At a briefing at the end of his two-day trip, he told reporters that his meeting with Pompeo was of “critical importance” to Israel’s security. The two discussed Netanyahu’s vow to annex the Jordan Valley and plans for a US-Israel mutual defense pact, but the prime minister did not report on any tangible progress on either front.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Lisbon, Portugal, December 4, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

At the center of his conversation with the US top diplomat was Iran, of course, but there, too, Netanyahu had no news to offer. He spoke vaguely about an “imminent, concrete” threat emanating from the regime, but said he could not divulge any additional details.

At the briefing, he steadfastly refused to address his legal woes, as well as those of his cousin and former personal lawyer David Shimron, and other close associates, in the grave submarine corruption scandal known as Case 3000. Would he ask for parliamentary immunity from prosecution? No comment. Would he be interested in asking for a presidential pardon? No comment.

Realizing that the prime minister did not want to discuss his personal matters, I asked him what he thinks about the UK Labour party’s candidate for prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn, and if he would agree to meet him if he were elected next week. Again, Netanyahu declined to comment, at least officially. (He did speak about the topic for several minutes, but his spokesperson immediately stressed that the answer was off the record.)

What about the reported rapprochement with Morocco? Netanyahu and Pompeo had discussed “the importance of economic cooperation with regional partners,” according to the State Department’s readout of their meeting, and the fact that Pompeo headed to Rabat right after his visit to Lisbon fueled speculation that an announcement of some sort of resumption of trade ties between the kingdom and Israel was in the offing.

Netanyahu, again, refused to say.

It is possible — indeed quite likely — that the coming days and weeks will reveal the true importance of this hastily arranged trip to Portugal. After all, it’s reasonable to assume that he didn’t fly without a good reason.

In the meantime, more than a few analysts posited that he and his wife, Sara, simply needed to get away from their troubles at home and spend a few worry-free hours in sunny Lisbon, including two dinners in fancy restaurants and a pleasant stroll in the city’s historical center.

It was there, at a memorial site for a massacre of Portuguese for Jews massacred in 1506, that Sara Netanyahu was filmed saying that what is being done to her family is “an inquisition for us.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu checks a phone while leaning on a memorial to Jews massacred in Lisbon, Portugal in 1506, on December 5, 2019. (Shalom Yerushalmi/Zman Yisrael)

Her comment, made to Zman Yisrael’s Shalom Yerushalmi, garnered more interest than anything else that happened on the trip, even meriting a push notification by a leading Israeli TV channel.

The episode was reminiscent of Netanyahu’s August trip to Ukraine, which many Israelis remember mostly for the prime minister’s wife dropping to the floor a piece of traditional Ukrainian bread that was offered to her by state officials upon the couple’s landing in Kyiv.

Netanyahu returned from that visit with few achievements, other than negative headlines about his wife’s diplomatic gaffe.

At the end of his briefing in Lisbon’s fancy Four Seasons hotel, as his aides asked him to wrap up because there was no more time, Netanyahu insisted on staying a few more minutes in the room to talk to reporters about his many achievements. He presented three graphs that ostensibly proved how Israel has turned into a military and economic power under his stewardship.

No push notifications were sent out.

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