With diplomatic gains in the US, Netanyahu briefly soared above the overhaul fight

Though protesters hounded his every move, the prime minister managed to temporarily recast his role. Back on home ground, he was in the thick of the partisan melee once again

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s US trip began on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, with a focus on the protests against judicial reform that have dogged his government since his justice minister unveiled the planned overhaul when he returned to power nine months ago.

Speaking to reporters before boarding his plane hours after the end of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, Netanyahu accused the protesters of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran,” which he framed as being against Israel rather than against his government.

His aides quickly realized that their boss had overstepped and worked to soften the statement.

Then Netanyahu took off for San Jose. In the United States for six days, the prime minister sought to leave the internal fight in Israel behind him and present himself as a world leader pursuing loftier goals.

Surprisingly, he largely succeeded.

It wasn’t that protesters weren’t out in force. They dogged his steps throughout his US trip.

When Netanyahu’s convoy sped out of San Jose’s airport at 5 a.m. ahead of his meeting with Elon Musk, several dozen expat Israelis and local Jews were there to meet him with signs and whistles.

Protesters rally outside Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits with businessman Elon Musk on September 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The streets around Netanyahu’s plush hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and near the United Nations compound where he held meetings throughout the week and gave his address on Friday were packed with Israelis wearing protest shirts and carrying Israeli flags.

But by the end of his time in the US — perhaps the best week of a tenure that hasn’t had many good ones — he had managed to generate coverage that had nothing to do with the protests, playing to his campaign claim, one that hasn’t been buttressed with much evidence of late, that he is singularly capable of grand achievements on the world stage.

In California, before some 4.5 million viewers, Netanyahu confidently weathered his conversation with Musk, speaking convincingly about artificial intelligence and even pushing back brazenly on some of the billionaire tech CEO’s ideas. With Israel among the world leaders in the cyber realm, Netanyahu was doubling down on his vision of turning the Jewish state into a pioneer in AI.

Asked about the overhaul, the premier seemed to distance himself from at least part of the legislative push, calling some of it “bad.” The comments generated a fair share of press in Israel, but his pronouncement proved too vague to really dominate the conversation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Elon Musk during a live discussion on the social media platform X, at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, September 18, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

As the trip moved to New York, attention largely shifted away from concerns about Israeli democracy to matters of more international import, especially a slow-brewing normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.

The prime minister enjoyed an unexpected boost from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who told Fox News in an interview last Wednesday that “every day we get closer” to Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel.

Netanyahu grabbed the opportunity, telling the world during his UN address on Friday that Israel is “at the cusp” of a historic peace agreement with Riyadh. The presence of a Saudi diplomat during the speech added to the sense that there could be real progress on a deal.

His aides leaked to reporters the night before the speech that Netanyahu would address the judicial reform fight and emphasize his commitment to democratic values, but he struck the entire section from the text, instead focusing on Saudi peace, the Iranian threat, and AI — big-ticket issues that fit his desire to leave a lasting legacy in the realm of Israeli security and beyond.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman smiles at the New Global Financial summit in Paris, June 22, 2023 (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

He followed up with interviews to Fox News and CNN reacting to MBS’s statements, describing the Saudi leader as “quite a visionary,” and warning that if a deal isn’t closed in the coming months, it could be delayed for years.

He managed to squeeze a hit out of his Wednesday meeting with Biden as well. Though a White House readout did not mention Israel-Saudi normalization, in front of the cameras Biden appeared bullish on the prospects of Israel and Saudi Arabia becoming allies.

“I suffer from, oxymoron, Irish optimism,” the president said. “If you and I 10 years ago were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we’d look at each other, like, Who’s been drinking what?”

Though the two did broach judicial reform, a topic Netanyahu isn’t eager to discuss with the US president, he walked away with the prize that’s been eluding him since December — an invitation to the White House. “I hope we’ll see each other in Washington by the end of the year,” Biden said during statements at the very start of their extended one-on-one meeting.

Netanyahu also chalked up some wins during his meetings with world leaders on the sidelines of the confab. His meeting with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, perenially frustrated by Israel’s wary assistance for Ukraine’s struggle to thwart Russia’s invasion, went well by all accounts, and two more countries committed to opening embassies in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky meet on the UN General Assembly sidelines on September 19, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

With the high-stakes week successfully behind him, Netanyahu was able to enjoy his Shabbat in his hotel, the fourth time he and his wife Sara have spent the weekend abroad on the taxpayer’s shekel at the tail end of an official visit.

He then rushed home with his staff, security detail and traveling press corps, landing just a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur, in time to be home as societal divisions seemingly aggravated by the judicial overhaul spilled onto Israel’s car-free streets.

But after managing to stay on message and reframe the conversation in the US away from the domestic unrest, the moment Yom Kippur ended, Netanyahu waded right back into the melee at home. When secular activists demonstrated against a massive Orthodox-run prayer service in a central Tel Aviv square — a development that horrified even many opponents of the judicial reform — Netanyahu was quick to attack the “left-wing demonstrators [who] rioted against Jews during their prayer.”

“It seems that there are no boundaries, no norms and no limitations on hatred from the extremists on the left. I, like most Israeli citizens, reject this. Such violent behavior has no place among us,” Netanyahu tweeted.

Back in Israel, back on the ground, with the Day of Atonement behind him, Netanyahu was once again sounding less like a history-making visionary and more like the crafty partisan who revels in political combat.

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