Put on world stage in Paris, Netanyahu still can’t escape domestic woes
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Put on world stage in Paris, Netanyahu still can’t escape domestic woes

Netanyahu received VIP treatment at the WWI memorial event, but when he went in front of Israeli reporters, the submarine probe and Gaza were all anybody wanted to talk about

Raphael Ahren

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves, as he arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris for a lunch after participating in a World War I commemoration ceremony, on November 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves, as he arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris for a lunch after participating in a World War I commemoration ceremony, on November 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Israel has no foreign policy, it only has a domestic policy, Henry Kissinger is said to have famously quipped many years ago.

These days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is probably wishing it was the other way around, that he could focus on Israel’s blooming international relations and not have to deal with petty politics at home.

His trip to Paris this week once again underlined that Netanyahu’s excels in diplomacy, effortlessly rubbing shoulders with the leaders of the world. But domestic woes trailed his trip to Paris, casting a shadow over his appearance;  he struggled when confronted with domestic issues.

On Sunday, the prime minister participated in a major commemoration of the end of World War I — one of the few leaders of a country that did not exist at the time of the war.

He gushed about the warm welcome he received in the French capital, but at a press conference later that day, he was bombarded with questions about a high-profile corruption trial involving close confidants and over his policies vis-a-vis Hamas in Gaza, which are unpopular on the right and the left.

As if he wanted to forget the possibility of another war on the Gaza border, Netanyahu headed to Paris on the basis of a creative reinterpretation of the World War I: Although it would take another 30 years before Israel became a reality, Netanyahu portrayed the Great War as a pivotal moment in Jewish history, and even of efforts to build a Jewish state.

“First of all, the fact that there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish fighters, which marked the next turning point in our ability to defend ourselves, and, of course it brought to an end the Ottoman Empire that ruled our land, and paved the way for Zionism,” he said on Saturday night, as he boarded his plane to Paris.

Some 70 world leaders attended the central memorial event Sunday on the foot of the Arc de Triomphe, but only Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not arrive at the venue with a bus like everyone else, but were ushered in separately.

During the solemn event, Netanyahu and his wife Sara sat in the front row, next to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and only a few meters away from Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron.

“There is no better evidence of the State of Israel’s standing in the world than the way we were accepted in this event, from the place we received, literally, in the first line of countries,” he said at a press conference on Sunday afternoon. “I see this as a great compliment to the State of Israel and its achievements.”

Netanyahu was invited to a lunch at the Elysee Palace, where he sat next to the leaders of Italy and Australia. At the sidelines of meal, he had conversations with Putin and Trump, as well as with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders from across the globe.

“Many of them — almost all — are interested in strengthening ties with Israel,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump following a lunch at the Elysee Palace in Paris on November 11, 2018. (Courtesy)

“But what was very interesting was a number of African leaders who spoke about the importance of cooperation with Israel and the way it could of course help their countries. I heard this from countries in Eastern Europe, Western European countries, African countries, Latin America, leaders who came and spoke without question that Israel is a rising force in the world. If someone needed proof, I would say — come to Paris.”

Even Netanyahu’s wife Sara was given VIP treatment. At a group photo of the leaders’ spouses in Palace of Versailles, where they had a separate event marking the armistice, she stood in the front row, flanked by First Ladies Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron.

The spouses of world leaders at a meeting in Versailles, outside Paris, November 11, 2018 (Erez Lichtfeld)

From the look of it, Israel punched way above its weight during Sunday’s memorial events.

But when Netanyahu called a rare press conference, nobody seemed much concerned with Jewish fighters during World War I or Israel’s place in the world. Instead, he was pounded about the stories actually leading the news agenda, the massive submarine graft probe that has embroiled several of his former associates and simmering tensions with Gaza.

How is it possible that Netanyahu did not know anything about the massive naval acquisitions graft probe that has embroiled several former associates, a reporter asked repeatedly.

President Donald Trump looks on as a White House aide takes away a microphone from CNN journalist Jim Acosta during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, November 7, 2018, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“You don’t want us to do a CNN,” Netanyahu said at one point, referring to an acrimonious confrontation between the network’s chief White House correspondent and the president of the United States.

But nobody tried to take the Israeli reporter’s microphone, and so he kept on pressing the prime minister on the issue. “Wait until the end of the [process],” a visibly annoyed Netanyahu replied, before attacking the press for trying to attach him to a corruption scandal he vows he had nothing to do with.

The next topic — Israel allowing Qatar to give Hamas millions of dollars in cash — also did not bring much joy to the prime minister.

He said the money would help stave off the looming humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and may help restore calm and prevent war. The inevitable follow-up questions forced to admit that he has no clear strategy for what to do with Gaza.

“There is no diplomatic solution for Gaza, just as there is no diplomatic solution for ISIS,” said Netanyahu. War is terrible and a responsible leader will do everything to prevent more bloodshed, even if that means giving millions to Hamas, he added, now saying publicly what he told reporters recently off the record.

A Palestinian woman counts her money after receiving her salary in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 9, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Netanyahu does not like to be seen as a warmonger, but dovish statements like these are unlikely to play well with his right-wing base. The left was not impressed, either, with Labor chief Avi Gabbay quickly saying that Israel must not give up trying to reach a political solution to the conflict.

He also refused to say which candidate for Jerusalem mayor he supports and dodged questions about Israel’s controversial plan to evacuate the illegal bedouin town Khan al-Ahmar.

As the press conference went on, Netanyahu was given the opportunity to attack the European Union for its “hostile policies” vis-a-vis Israel and tout the Jewish state’s standing growing cache with certain segments of the Arab world. These brief moments of respite notwithstanding, he likely still regretted agreeing to hold a press conference.

Netanyahu will fly back to Israel on Monday, where he will be dogged by the same questions and scandals, coalition bickering and reporters’ hounding him.

After a week, he will be back in Europe, this time making the first trip to Vienna by an Israeli premier in 20 years. This time, he will have to face tough questions about Israel’s ties with an Austrian government that includes the far-right Freedom Party.

But at least he’ll always have Paris.

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