ROME - Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had a moment on his visit to Rome this week that he undoubtedly wishes he could he could have in other capitals around the world.
Standing on a dais with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in a tent erected for their press conference near the 16th-century palace Villa Madama, Netanyahu smiled as Berlusconi told the press, “We agree on everything.”
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That statement sure was different than what he heard in his photo-op with US President Barack Obama in Washington. It caused the Israeli press accompanying Netanyahu to ponder that if Berlusconi could be replicated and made prime minister of a few dozen countries, it might cause problems for the young women of those countries, but it could potentially be great for Israel.
The visit came as Berlusconi has been suffering from a steep decline in the polls. Italian voters came out in huge numbers while Netanyahu was in town to pass a series of referenda that Berlusconi opposed.
Italians said they had become embarrassed of their prime minister, who
might have hurt himself in the vote when he reminded them of the sex
parties he has been accused of hosting with underage women, by referring
to a 19th-century painting of Apollo surrounded by naked nymphs – the
backdrop for the press conference with Netanyahu – as “bunga bunga.”
Officials at the press office of the Israeli embassy in Rome were
disappointed that the Italian journalists focused on the “bunga bunga”
quote in their reports and not on Berlusconi’s overtures to Israel and
his offer to host peace talks in Sicily. But Netanyahu’s advisers saw
the visit as a great success.
As Israeli spokesmen said when the corruption of Egyptian president
Hosni Mubarak was revealed after he was forced out, we are in no
position to judge the foreign leaders who take our side, especially at a
time when we need all the friends we can get around the world.
Israel continued dealing with the Nixon and Clinton administrations even at the height of their scandals.
Netanyahu's next trips abroad will be to Romania and Bulgaria, and then
separately to Poland and Hungary, in an attempt to obtain what he calls a
“moral minority” to oppose the unilateral declaration of Palestinian
statehood at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
He knows he can’t stop the Palestinians from passing the resolution.
The overwhelming majority of UN nations are not only anti-Israel, they
are anti-America and anti-West. But he believes he can get 30-50 Western
nations to vote against the resolution so he can say the countries that
really matter stood with us when push came to shove.
And even if he gets fewer countries than that to vote no in September,
he already knows he has more countries than voted against Palestinian
statehood in the UN in 1988, when only the US joined Israel in casting a
The argument Netanyahu is using to persuade his interlocutors is that
the vote in September is not just bad for Israel. It’s bad for the
Palestinians, and it’s bad for peace.
“The UN resolution hardens Palestinian positions, making it harder for
them to make compromises and pushing peace further away,” Netanyahu
In a briefing for Italian journalists, Netanyahu asked them if there was
a local equivalent for the Italian-sounding Hebrew phrase “o-to-to,”
meaning “almost there.” He said that if six Israeli prime ministers,
including himself, had offered the Palestinians painful compromises, and
some had come “o-to-to” close to reaching a deal, the world should
consider the possibility that the lack of peace was not Israel’s fault.
Netanyahu went as far as calling the Palestinian spin that Israel was to
blame “a big hoax” and “the greatest con game in human history.”
Explaining what he’d meant by demanding in his landmark speeches at
Bar-Ilan University and Congress that the Palestinians recognize Israel
as a Jewish state, he said the Palestinians needed to state publicly
that their dream of flooding Israel with millions of great-grandchildren
of refugees was over.
When Netanyahu meets with world leaders and influential journalists, he
implores them to try go get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas to say he supports not just a two-state solution, but two states
for two peoples, with one being for the Jewish people. He says one of
the reasons the UN resolution is unhelpful is that it doesn’t call for
two states for two peoples, but only for a Palestinian state.
Sounding surprisingly like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman does when
he speaks publicly, in closed conversations Netanyahu warns his
counterparts that the Palestinians will want to create another Arab
state in the Galilee after Israel withdraws from the West Bank.
In between his trips abroad to soften the blow at the UN in September,
Netanyahu is dealing with American and European emissaries who are
trying to do everything possible to restart negotiations between Israel
and the Palestinians in an effort to get the September vote canceled.
The diplomatic efforts are expected to intensify over the next month,
because the deadline for resolutions to be submitted for the General
Assembly is July 15.
Between now and then, the Americans and Europeans, who appear to be much
more fearful of September than Israel is, will try to pressure
Netanyahu to make concessions to bring the Palestinians back to the
Israeli diplomatic officials hope that by visiting European countries
and obtaining their opposition to the resolution, Netanyahu could take
the wind out of the Palestinians’ sails and get them to drop the UN
resolution and come back to the table at a lower cost to Israel.
That’s why every European visit is important, and the fight going on in the international media matters as well.
Haaretz no doubt harmed Netanyahu’s effort to persuade the world when it
sent author Etgar Keret to cover the visit to Italy, as part of the
paper’s annual authors edition in honor of Hebrew Book Week. It was
clear from the start that Keret was there to write a satirical piece and
not a serious report.
Keret asked Netanyahu why he did not make territorial concessions to
correct the impression that Israel was the reason the peace process was
not moving forward.
Rather than ignore Keret and focus on the real journalists covering the
visit, Netanyahu devoted most of his press briefing to trying to
persuade Keret that justice was on Israel’s side.
Netanyahu paraphrased part of Keret’s question when he said that if
there was an impression that the conflict with the Palestinians was
unsolvable, it was because it wasn’t about territory, but the
Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Haaretz took what Netanyahu said out of context and ran a banner
headline on Wednesday: “Netanyahu says there’s no solution to the
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni read the headline with great fanfare later
that day on the Knesset floor as proof that there was no hope for peace
The briefing from which Keret quoted was off-record, and reporters were
told that the prime minister could not be quoted directly, as was the
case with a separate briefing earlier the same day for Italian
journalists, which Keret did not attend.
At the risk of earning the wrath of the prime minister’s spokesmen, here
is a direct quote from Netanyahu in the briefing for the Italians: “The
conflict can be solved. It’s hard, but it can be solved.”
The Keret episode underscored the challenge that lies ahead for Netanyahu.
He believes he can succeed in persuading anyone truly willing to listen.
If only the entire world were as easy to win over as Berlusconi.