PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)
WASHINGTON – Before boarding his plane for Washington early Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a brief statement to reporters, which made it perfectly clear why he was leaving the country for four days to travel to the United States just 16 days before the election.
“The ties that I have with world leaders – with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, with [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi from India, with [President Jair] Bolsonaro, who will arrive here next week from Brazil, with [Shinzo] Abe from Japan, with the leaders of China, and with other leaders – are an asset to the State of Israel,” he said.
“However, we have never had such a bond between the prime minister of Israel and an American president. This is a very, very important asset for the State of Israel and it is important that it continues to serve us.”
Netanyahu was not leaving the campaign trail, rather he is using Washington as the backdrop for this part of the campaign in which he wants to drive home one message: “I have brought Israel’s relations to the world to unprecedented heights, I am the only one you can count on to sit and meet eye-to-eye with Putin, Modi, Bolsonaro, Abe and US President Donald Trump.”
At his meetings with Trump on Monday and Tuesday, and during his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu wants the public to see just how far Israel’s relations with the world have advanced, especially with the US, and that he is the one responsible for it. His subtext to the voter is clear: “These aren’t relationships you want to squander.”
It is undeniable that Netanyahu has developed a special relationship with Putin – whom he has known since the late 1990s even before he became Russia’s president, and with Trump – as well as with Modi, Abe, Bolsonaro and other leaders such as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
The question is whether he is the only one who can do this. Would those leaders have brought their countries closer to Israel regardless of who its prime minister is, because of their own national interests and what Israel has to offer?
Would Putin be meeting Blue and White leader Benny Gantz with the same regularity with which he meets Netanyahu? Would Modi have lavished the same type of welcome on Yair Lapid if he were prime minister as he did on Netanyahu when he visited the country in January 2018? Would Trump have recognized Jerusalem or the Golan Heights if Labor leader Avi Gabbay was prime minister?
Netanyahu will use his appearances in the US to say, ‘no’ – that it is his experience, his sense of history, his rhetorical abilities that have all brought about a substantial change in Israel’s position in the world.
Netanyahu will use his few days in Washington to impress upon the Israeli public that the ties with these countries and these leaders did not just happen, but that they took careful foresight and cultivation. He wants them to think that vastly improved ties with Africa, Latin America, Asia, even certain segments of the European Union, and now the US under Trump, did not just happen; that this did not just sprout out of thin air, but rather that his was the guiding hand behind it. And his message is clear: if that guiding hand disappears, those relations will suffer.
Through his meeting with Trump, and his speech in impeccable English at the AIPAC conference, he will say to the public: “Only I can do this, only I can meet eye-to-eye with the world’s leaders and make Israel’s case.”
Gantz, however, bristles at the idea that no one can do as good a job on the world stage as Netanyahu.
Asked in English at a Washington press conference whether he can fill Netanyahu’s shoes in these matters, he responded: “Easily. People are telling you legendary stories. Have I not sat with prime ministers before, with presidents before, chiefs of staff before? Is my starting point any worse than Netanyahu’s was 13 years or 15 years ago? Do I have less experience than he had 13 years ago? Do I not have great partners with me to do this?”
In other words, Gantz was saying, when it comes to foreign policy and the ability to deal with foreign leaders, “I am in Netanyahu’s league.”
Over the next two days – through two meetings with Trump and a well-crafted speech to thousands of cheering supporters at AIPAC – Netanyahu’s campaign will try to show that this is not the case, and that when it comes to representing Israel on the world stage, Netanyahu is in a league of his own. And that message is so important to the prime minister’s campaign that he was willing to leave the country for almost five days in the midst of an increasingly challenging campaign to make that point clear.
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