Told to find own way home, journalists threaten to boycott Netanyahu’s US trip

Prime Minister’s Office informs press pool they cannot return on official flight ahead of Yom Kippur; letter claims discrimination against religious reporters

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L)) and his wife, Sara, ahead of a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris on February 2, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L)) and his wife, Sara, ahead of a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris on February 2, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

Israel’s diplomatic correspondents are threatening to boycott Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the US next week, after his office told them they would not be permitted to fly back with him hours before the Yom Kippur holiday.

“On behalf of all the reporters who are slated to fly with the prime minister, I am informing you that so long as we cannot return with you on the prime minister’s plan, we will not register for the trip and will be absent from it,” wrote Yedioth Ahronoth’s Itamar Eichner, head of the diplomatic reporters pool, in a letter to Netanyahu spokesman Topaz Luk and other senior aides.

“It is unreasonable to expect us, the journalists who accompany the trip, to violate Shabbat in order to arrive in Israel before Yom Kippur or, alternatively, to stay on Yom Kippur in New York,” the letter continued. “What is forbidden to reporters according to the rules of the protocol should apply to the entire entourage.”

On Sunday, the diplomatic press corps received a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office stating that “because of logistical and security constraints due to the proximity of the start of Yom Kippur to the take-off for Israel, journalists will not be able to fly back on the prime minister’s plane.”

“Journalists joining the trip must take care of return flights themselves,” read the instructions from the PMO.

Netanyahu is scheduled to take off late Sunday night, hours after the end of the Rosh Hashanah holiday. He will hold a series of meetings on Monday in Silicon Valley, including a potential meeting with billionaire CEO Elon Musk. Netanyahu and his delegation will then fly to  New York to speak at the United Nations General Assembly and meet with world leaders.

General view of the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, during a discussion on the state budget, May 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The press corps accompanying senior Israeli officials on trips regularly join them on both flights. The directive to find their flights back independently, especially days before the Yom Kippur holiday, is virtually unheard of.

“You are excluding from the delegation anyone who wants to observe Yom Kippur in Israel (as the prime minister, his entourage and the professionals want to do) and is not willing to violate Shabbat and fly during it,” charged the letter.

What is forbidden to reporters is also forbidden to the Prime Minister and his entourage.

“Trips by heads of government over the years have been conducted in such a way as to prevent Shabbat desecration — we insist that a solution be found this time as well,” insisted the reporters.

“What is forbidden to reporters is also forbidden to the prime minister and his entourage.”

Times of Israel correspondents Lazar Berman and Tal Schneider were among the letter’s signatories.

US Vice President Joe Biden during a press conference at the residence of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not seen, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 9, 2010.(Ariel Schalit/AP)

Netanyahu’s speech was originally scheduled for Thursday afternoon, which would allow everyone to return on time for the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night. But Netanyahu’s office asked for the speech to be moved to Friday morning New York time, claiming that they preferred the pre-Shabbat time slot back in Israel.

However, moving the speech to a time that necessitates remaining abroad over the weekend plays into ongoing criticism of Netanyahu’s official travel with his wife, Sara. The couple flew to Rome, London, and Paris late in the week, and stayed in five-star hotels over Shabbat on the taxpayers’ dime. The PMO insisted that Thursday evening and Friday morning meetings with European leaders were scheduled based on the needs of the their hosts.

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

For Netanyahu, the trip to the US will be his first since taking office again in December as the head of a right-wing government. US President Joe Biden has resisted inviting him to the White House and will only meet him on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

The White House has repeatedly expressed disapproval of many statements and policies emanating from members of Netanyahu’s hardline government, as well as with its judicial overhaul plan, which has roiled the country.

Most Popular
read more: