BOGOTA – Everyone likes to get away, to clear the head, break the routine: the gardener, the shopkeeper, the doctor and the lawyer.
Everyone, it seems, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Say what you will about Netanyahu and his policies, love or loathe him, the man is a workaholic, almost never taking a vacation. And when he does take a couple perfunctory days off in August, he tours some antiquities somewhere in Israel, which he then references in posts on social media to stress the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
It is said of Woodrow Wilson, America’s president during World War I, that he played golf almost every day in office. Current US President Donald Trump recently took a multi-week vacation and also hits the links more than the average guy. But Netanyahu? He rarely takes time off.
Which doesn’t mean the prime minister doesn’t get away.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Argentina, September 11, 2017 Netanyahu is currently on a 10-day trip
to Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and the US. Though the trip is grueling, a 20-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires, with a 90-minute refueling layover in Madrid; though when he lands he immediately reviews honor guards, holds state meetings that demand full concentration, delivers lectures and grants interviews to the local media; for Netanyahu this constitutes getting away.
Why? Because he is getting away from Meni Naftali, from police investigations, and from ceaseless speculation as to when and if Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit is going to hand down an indictment.
For Netanyahu, addressing an economic forum in Buenos Aires and Mexico City is a welcome respite, allowing him to speak uninterrupted about grand economic policy and Israel’s strengthened status in the world, rather than having to address questions about police cases 1000, 2000 and 3000.
On trips such as these, which will culminate in an address to the United Nations, where Netanyahu generally shines, he is in his most comfortable element: holding meetings with heads of state, defending Israel in interviews, delivering speeches. This is his element, kind of like Wilson on the golf course.
Netanyahu goes abroad not infrequently. In the last 10 months he has traveled to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Britain, the United States, Singapore, Australia, China, Liberia, France, Hungary, Russia – a couple of times – and now three Latin American countries where a serving Israeli prime minister has never set foot. Last year he also went to four other countries an Israeli prime minister never visited before: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
The purpose of these trips is obviously not to “get away,” but one of the side benefits of these travels for the prime minister is that it gives him a break from his pesky problems at home.
Netanyahu is a big-picture guy. He thinks in terms of the big picture, and likes to talk about the big picture. And that is something these trips afford him the opportunity to do.
With Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri he talked about economic reform, with Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes he talked about Hezbollah’s inroads into South America, with Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos he discussed reconstruction after war. And everywhere he went he talked about Iran’s nefarious designs.
To the journalists accompanying Netanyahu, he also insisted on talking about those big-picture issues, refusing politely – but still refusing – to address those issues he left at home: his son Yair’s controversial Facebook posts, how he feels about the investigations against him.
Just as people on vacation don’t want to be bothered with work problems, Netanyahu abroad doesn’t want to be troubled by the issues that dog him at home. Those issues get enough attention in Israel; on trips overseas, he wants to shift the focus.
“My goal is to turn Israel into a rising world power,” he told the reporters accompanying him shortly after meeting Macri. He then explained that “there is a method to this non-madness,” and that this is a process of turning Israel into a world power which is being carried out in a “very methodical, systematic” fashion.
In order for Israel to be a “rising world power,” he said, launching into a macro explanation, it needs to cultivate its two strengths: its technical strength and military strength. But technological and military might need a strong economy to fund it, and to strengthen Israel’s economy the country is currently “spreading out to all continents with a speed not seen before.”
Before going to Latin America, Netanyahu focused his attention on Africa, and this focus will continue, despite the cancellation this week of a planned African-Israel summit in Togo in October.
The first priority of Israel’s outreach to Africa, Netanyahu said, is to change that continent’s voting pattern on Israel in international fora, because if Israel could get many of the 54 African countries to change their voting patterns, it would significantly chip away at the automatic majority against Israel at the UN.
The priority in Latin America, however, is different. Though Israel would obviously love to see the Latin American countries shift their voting patterns on Israel – there are, however, far fewer Latin American countries than African ones – Netanyahu said the main priority in making inroads in South America is economic.
“There are two ways to grow a business, and also a business called the state’s economy,” he said. “You either create new products, or you create new markets. What we are doing here is creating new markets.”
Netanyahu said that the Latin American market has been barely tapped by Israel, and that the potential is huge. Israel needs a strong economy not only to fund its security, social and infrastructure needs, but also to stay attractive to other countries in the world that want what Israel has to offer.
Security and technological capabilities enable Israel to build critical alliances, the prime minister explained, but to develop those security and technological capabilities that other countries need and want, a strong economy – based on new markets – is needed.
“There is currently almost no government in the world not willing to cooperate with us on the issue of terrorism,” Netanyahu said. And in an apparent reference to the Arab world, he added, “even if their public declarations are in the opposite direction.”
In relationships between countries, Netanyahu said, “there is no situation where you only give. In order to get, you have to give. And that puts Israel in a position of great strength with other countries. We have capabilities that in some cases are better than those of other countries in the world, and we have some capabilities that no other country has in the world – and all of this is in areas that other countries are interested in.”
Netanyahu said this all constitutes a “huge change” and reflects a great deal of respect for Israel’s capabilities, and it also gives Israel a degree of leverage the country has never enjoyed in the past. But a strong economy is essential to pay for those unique capabilities. Those are the issues that Netanyahu loves to discuss, which is why this current trip is a way for him to “get away.”
And this particular trip to Latin America has – at least until he arrives in the US Friday afternoon – also afforded him a getaway from another issue for a few days: the Palestinians.
Whenever Netanyahu travels to the US and Europe, much of the focus is on the diplomatic process: on settlements, on what initiatives Israel has to offer, on the situation in Gaza, on the status of Jerusalem. But the Palestinian issue did not come up once in his meeting with Macri, and was barely discussed when he met Santos.
Macri has economic reform on his mind, and Santos is preoccupied with postwar reconstruction. They want to hear how Netanyahu and Israel can help them, not lecture the prime minister about peace – another reason why this jam-packed trip, if not exactly a relaxing holiday, is actually a getaway of sorts for the prime minister.