'Our stay in London didn't cost the State of Israel even a single shekel, and was financed entirely by Israel Bonds and the Jewish community. I paid for my private expenses out of my own pocket. I worked from morning until night giving interviews to the international media, holding press conferences and holding meetings with journalists, newspaper editors, leaders and members of the Jewish community in order to repel the Arab propaganda. I acted for the state, not at the expense of the state.'
That was Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu speaking on Monday, after last week's Channel 10 news broadcast report according to which his trip to London in the summer of 2006 to argue Israel's case during the Second Lebanon War had cost (for him and his wife) no less than NIS 131,000 ($32,000).
Furious that someone had leaked the details of his trip in a bid to embarrass him publicly, Bibi shot back at Channel 10 with a NIS 2 million libel suit, charging that the station had cooperated with one of his political opponents in a bid to smear him, misrepresenting his London visit as a pleasure trip and suggesting that it was in violation of governmental ethics regulations.
Netanyahu's allies were also quick to charge the media with ganging up on the Likud leader in response to current polls showing him as the public's preferred choice for prime minister.
Bibi may have overstated matters in accusing Channel 10 of having "knowingly turned [him] into a tool serving deliberate political persecution," but there was indeed precious little fire behind the smoke of correspondent Raviv Druker's report.
Whether it was politically wise of Netanyahu to take his wife along on this particular trip, fly first class and stay in one of London's most exclusive hotels is certainly questionable. But Druker was unjustified in ominously talking about "anonymous elements" underwriting the trip, when a few phone calls could have easily determined they were Israel Bonds and British-Jewish millionaire Joshua Rowe.
As it became clear that Netanyahu was probably guilty of not much more than a taste for the good life, commentators, such as Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea, criticized him for being "a hedonist," and Ha'aretz columnists dubbed him "Million-dollar Bibi" and "King Bibi the First."
Oh please. You don't have to be a supporter either of Bibi or of his policies - and I'm neither - to take his side in this particular matter.
While it would be nice if we still had leaders around like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who lived modest existences not much above that of average Israelis, those days are long gone.
Netanyahu is no different in his expensive tastes from Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak or just about any other serious contender for the premiership nowadays, and at least his lifestyle is entirely consistent with the hyper-capitalist economic policies he advocates, something that can't be said of many of his political peers.
As for taking all-expense-paid trips abroad for all sorts of reasons, there is certainly no shortage of local journalists who readily accept such offers themselves (and I don't excuse myself here). Somehow I doubt many have made complaints that they are not worthy of the fine hotels they are sometimes put up in.
Most importantly, isn't the real scandal here not the cost of Netanyahu's London trip, but that his presence there was still so welcomed by the local Jewish community, because the Israeli ambassador at the time was not up to the task of adequately defending the government's policies in the British media?
However, all that being said, Bibi's reaction to this affair is simply further proof that - to turn an old phrase - just because you have enemies, doesn't mean you're not paranoid.
Netanyahu's problematic relations with the media are not simply a matter of his policies, as there are certainly other figures on the Right who have enjoyed more sympathetic (or at least less hostile) press coverage.
Though Netanyahu is a consummate television performer, in any democracy, part of a politician's job is to cultivate the media to some degree, a task the Likud leader seems unable or unwilling to adequately perform, or even delegate to someone who can.
Part of this is due, no doubt, to Bibi's well-documented problem with maintaining good working/personal relations with even those who agree with his positions. Indeed, the continual exodus of aides and advisers from his circle over the years has included more than a few talented PR professionals.
Another part of this stems from a deeply ingrained hostility to the press that he just can't seem to overcome, even when necessary. It's often said that this doesn't matter, because his supporters largely share his hostility. Yet Netanyahu's tendency to speak largely to the prejudices of his base constituency, rather than trying to move beyond them, has been one of his major political problems.
With shrewder media management, Netanyahu could easily have deflected the fall-out of this past week - or even turned it to his advantage - had he dealt with it with less defensive hostility and even a smidgen of humorous humility. Once again, however, one of Israel's most able advocates in the international arena proved inept at defending himself on his home media turf.
SOMETIMES I'M amazed by the nonsense written and broadcast about Israel in even the most reputable foreign media outlets, not all of it related directly to the political situation here.
Take, for example, a piece titled "A terror tour of Israel," written by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, that appeared last week in Slate, the Washington Post-owned on-line magazine.
It begins: "The tourists still haven't come back to Israel, despite the aggressive rebranding campaign ('Hot Israel') and the photo spread in Maxim magazine ('Women of the Israel Defense Forces'). The country had even gone a year without a single suicide bombing, but our garrulous taxi driver was complaining as he drove us from Ben-Gurion airport to the Sheraton hotel in Jerusalem. 'Now, it's mostly religious travelers - evangelical Christians and religious Jews,' he said... In 2000 - what should have been a banner year for tourism and pilgrimages - the number of visitors to the Promised Land plummeted...' So, what can a country do when its tourist industry is eclipsed by terrorism? The answer, it seems, is to market terrorism to tourists. In perhaps one of the strangest twists of Middle East politics, terrorism is being used to lure visitors back to Israel."
Far be it for me to impeach the credibility of Israeli taxi-drivers as a source of reliable information, but it's been widely reported that tourists are coming back to Israel - an annual increase of 25 percent in 2007 for a total of 2.3 million visitors, just shy of the record 2.4 million set in 2000. (It was the year after that when tourism plunged.) Some 182,000 tourists visited Israel in January this year, an all-time record for that month.
I suspect the authors deliberately left out those inconvenient facts to support their bogus premise. Israel is, of course, not trying to "market terrorism to tourists" - a conclusion the authors reached by taking a specialized tour that they themselves admit "was aimed at US police officers and homeland-security professionals."
If anything, with its new "Israel beyond the conflict" information campaign, the government is trying, more aggressively than ever, to market abroad aspects of the country that have nothing to do with its security situation.
The Slate piece is full of such absurdities - such as its breathless observation that "More than 300 cameras are installed at different points around the Old City in addition to sensors and listening devices."
Can the authors really be unaware that this is standard practice not only in several European cities (London has some 10,000 such street cameras), but is also now being used in some US cities, such as Boston?
Slate is quick to jump on other media outlets for journalistic lapses (it employs a full-time press critic, Jack Shafer), but seems less vigilant in policing itself.
It occasionally does run Israel-related articles from more qualified sources, such as Ha'aretz Washington correspondent Shmuel Rosner, as well as by such anti-Israel polemicists as Mitchell Prothero. Clearly, though, when it comes to the subject of Israeli tourism, Slate's editors draw a blank.