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AnalysisIt’s the economy, estúpido

On ‘post-army trek’ to Latin America, Netanyahu gets a break from domestic woes

Ahead of Trump meet and UN speech, PM does what he likes best: extolling Israel as a hi-tech and intel superpower. But his troubles are waiting for him at home

Raphael Ahren

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a presser with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (out of frame), at the Los Pinos Residence in Mexico City, on September 14, 2017.  (Alfredo Estrella/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a presser with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (out of frame), at the Los Pinos Residence in Mexico City, on September 14, 2017. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP)

MEXICO CITY — Minutes after landing in Colombia on Wednesday, still at the airport, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a small gathering of Jewish leaders and Evangelical Christians supportive of Israel.

He opened his remarks by noting that many young Israelis, after they’re discharged from the army, go hiking in South America. “So this is my post-army trek to South America,” he quipped.

Netanyahu, who had arrived in Bogota after two jam-packed days in Buenos Aires, repeated this joke several times this week. It was an apt metaphor for his tour through Latin America — the first-ever of a sitting Israeli prime minister. (Netanyahu had briefly been to Bogota 30 years ago, when he served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN.)

Netanyahu’s four-day trip to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico can to some extent be interpreted in the same spirit as that of Israelis who, following the travails and traumas of military service, head to Latin America, Asia and other far-away places to hike, explore, let off steam and generally let themselves go.

For Netanyahu, beleaguered by corruption probes and other controversies at home, this trip to Latin America was an opportunity for him to get away from his troubles and dwell on the things he loves.

He spoke to the traveling press several times over the course of the trip, but whenever reporters asked him about his or his wife’s legal trouble, or his son Yair’s controversial Facebook posts, he immediately ended the conversation and walked away.

Call it diplomatic escapism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (R), at the Los Pinos Residence in Mexico City, on September 14, 2017. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP)

Like he does on nearly all his trips abroad, in Latin America — a continent long neglected by Israel’s foreign policy — Netanyahu focused on the issues that play to his strengths: appearances with foreign leaders and promoting Israel’s hi-tech and security prowess.

In country after country, meeting after meeting, he hailed Israel as an “innovation nation” that has much to offer to the world, in agriculture, water technology, cybersecurity, and many other areas.

“We can make our air cleaner, our water safer to drink, we can produce more milk per cow — that’s actually what Israel does better than any country in the world — we can harvest crops in ways that are unimaginable, we can feed livestock in ways that are more economic and produce better results, we can change the health of our populations with digital health, we can drive our cars more safely, with less energy, with fewer accidents,” he declared at a meeting with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri.

“We can do more with less,” he stressed again in Bogota during an appearance with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “We think that we can do a lot more here, a lot more together.”

It’s the economy, estúpido.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos smile during a ceremony to sign agreements at the Narino palace in Bogota on September 13, 2017. (Raul Arboleda/AFP)

But not only. Netanyahu’s diplomatic outreach to Latin America (and other long-neglected areas) also banked on the fact that the Jewish state is famous for its security expertise. Wanting a piece of it, the nations of the world — including most Arab states, he asserted repeatedly — enthusiastically cooperate with Israel in this sphere, and are willing to forget about past disagreements over the Palestinian issue just to be on Israel’s good’s side. At least, that’s the Netanyahu narrative.

Latin American leaders, worried about Iranian-backed terror cells and Venezuela’s negative influence on the neighborhood, are also interested in upgrading their military and intelligence ties with Israel, he also believes.

“Israel has spearheaded the fight against global terrorism, and we will continue to act decisively and in various ways to defend ourselves against Iranian aggression and terrorism, and terrorism at large,” Netanyahu said Monday at the site of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. “We will do so together with our partners here in South America.”

South of the Rio Grande, it did indeed often seem, nobody is bothered too much with the two-state solution or West Bank settlements. At several of his public appearances with his various hosts over the week, the Palestinians weren’t even mentioned.

In his closed-door meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, it was actually Netanyahu himself who raised the topic, he told reporters afterwards. “It wasn’t brought up. I brought it up,” he said, adding that he delivered a “short lecture” on what he thinks are the real reasons for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s longevity. Nieto and his aides were dumbfounded by his presentation about the lengths Israel is willing to go for lasting peace, he claimed.

Latin American countries have started to change their traditionally pro-Palestinian voting patterns at international organizations, and this process will continue in the coming years, Netanyahu went on.

“I was actually surprised how marginal the criticism was in the media — it didn’t exist,” he said, noting that his hosts had been warned that welcoming the Israeli prime minister could cost them public sympathies. “The leaders themselves are the best seismographs – they understand that not only don’t they have a problem with this public embrace of Israel, but it has benefits. There is a lot of sympathy.”

Indeed, on a continent that has had a complicated relationship with the Jewish state, the prime minister and his delegation were welcomed very warmly. There were no notable anti-Netanyahu protests and local papers generally focused their reports on the economic aspects of his visit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri at the San Martin palace, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during his official state visit. September 12, 2017. (Avi Ohayon / Government Press Office)

Even in Mexico, which earlier this year fumed over Netanyahu’s tweet praising US President Donald Trump’s plan to build a border wall, he was greeted as a senior statesman who had come to promote bilateral trade. Some papers mentioned the controversial tweet, others didn’t. During long speeches at an event hosted Thursday by the Mexican Jewish community, the incident — which had sparked a wave of anti-Semitism at the time — was not raised.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport on May 23, 2017, at the end of Trump’s visit to Israel (Coby Gideon / GPO)

In New York too, the last leg of his 10-day tour, Netanyahu can look forward to a friendly welcome. In his meeting with Trump on Monday, he is expected to discuss some thorny issues — the peace process, the future of the Iranian deal, and the entrenchment of Shiite forces on Israel’s northern border. But the public part of the meeting, at least, is guaranteed to be full of expressions of mutual admiration and appreciation.

Another highlight will be the prime minister’s address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Netanyahu knows he’s a effective speaker and revels in the accolades he is sure to receive from supporters worldwide.

From Turtle Bay, Netanyahu will rush to the airport to make it back to Jerusalem in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins Wednesday.

Still, when he wakes up in 5778, despite his successful visits in Latin and North America, he will find that his domestic troubles are all still there.

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