MOSCOW – The cherry on the top of traveling abroad with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – indeed, the main added value to be had in going on these trips – is the briefings he always gives the traveling press.
Much has been written about how Netanyahu has stopped interviewing or doing press conferences with the Israeli media. That is all true, but he does give briefings to Israeli reporters while abroad. This is an institution that predates him, and one that he has continued.
These briefings – part of which are on the record, part in the name of a senior diplomatic source, and part only for background – have proven valuable over the years in providing a window into Netanyahu’s thinking.
The drill goes like this: He walks into a room with his top aides – the number of those aides has shrunken noticeably over the years – and takes his place at the center on one side of a long table, with the journalists facing him on the other side.
He begins with rather predictable comments about how this particular visit was successful and important for Israel and its security, and then goes around the room and takes questions. While he prefers taking questions that deal with the purpose of the visit, the queries vary and deal with a wide range of issues: diplomatic, political, domestic and legal.
Sometimes these briefings provide real news, as when he reveals something unexpected that came up with the leader he just met. Sometimes they provide insight into his overall worldview or what makes him tick. Sometimes they are just the repetition of sound bites heard time and time again.
It all depends on the prime minister’s humor and mood at the moment. Does he want to make headlines? Is he introspective? Is he distracted?
In the briefing he gave on Wednesday, it was very clear that this time he was distracted. This briefing was very short, less than 15 minutes, and he was not focused – it was clear his mind was elsewhere.
And for good reason. A few hours after the briefing, he would leave the diplomatic warmth of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and fly back to Israel and the cold-water bath of Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s expected decision to indict him.
Before getting on the plane in Moscow for his return flight home, however, he and his wife, Sara, stopped – and left the entire entourage waiting for a couple hours – for a late-night supper that ended after midnight at the fabled Café Pushkin, the couple’s favorite restaurant in Moscow.
One reporter in the press van, waiting for the Netanyahus to finish dinner so the entourage could fly back to Israel, quipped sardonically to a colleague who complained about the inconvenience: “Let him enjoy, it’s probably his Last Supper.”
THE SPECTER of Mandelblit’s decision cast a heavy pall over Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow, a visit he has been very interested in taking ever since the downing of the Russian intelligence plane last September that led to a mini-crisis in Israeli-Russian ties. Who knows whether this visit, believed to be his 16th to Russia during his nearly 13 years as prime minister spread over four different terms, will be his last in this job?
When the Knesset dissolved itself and new elections were called in late December, it appeared as if Netanyahu was intent on taking as many diplomatic trips abroad as possible.
A week after elections were called, he went to Brazil for the New Year’s Day inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Plans were also in the works for a trip later in January to Davos; to India, Warsaw and Munich in February; and – the icing on the cake – a trip to Washington and a meeting with US President Donald Trump at the end of March, just two weeks before the April 9 elections.
Netanyahu also was keen on a meeting in Moscow with Putin because that would be a clear sign that the crisis between the two countries following the downing of the plane was a thing of the past, and the countries were moving on.
The reason for the prime minister’s burst of wanderlust was clear. In an election campaign where his opponents are jumping all over his legal woes, Netanyahu wants to highlight his strength: Netanyahu the statesman, Netanyahu the leader able to meet eyeball-to-eyeball with the Putins, Modis, and Trumps of the world – and stand his own.
Though the trips to Davos, New Delhi and Munich were scuttled for various reasons, the Moscow trip did materialize. For Netanyahu, that was the good news. The bad news was that it was overshadowed by the impending Mandelblit decision and its political implications.
The shadow appeared as Netanyahu boarded the plane after midnight Wednesday morning, when, after he issued a brief statement about the objectives of his visit, the first question shouted in his direction had to do with the Mandelblit decision. Netanyahu responded by saying, “I intend to realize all of the goals for which I am leaving for Moscow, and we will return when they are achieved.” In other words: No comment.
And the shadow hung heavy in the room where he briefed journalists after the Putin meeting, where the prime minister – intent on talking only about the meeting and ties with Moscow – sidestepped a couple of attempts by reporters to get him to address Mandelblit.
“This is really connected to the visit in Russia,” he said sarcastically, deflecting one question. On another occasion, he said that he would address the issue when back in Israel.
THE BRIEF respite that trips abroad – including trips to Moscow – have brought Netanyahu over the years from domestic political woes was not to be had this time.
Which is unusual, because trips to Russia have served this purpose many times before. Consider these words that led a New York Times article from March 12, 1997, during Netanyahu’s first trip to Russia as prime minister, where he was to meet Russian president Boris Yeltsin: “Under intense political fire at home, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel sought a reprieve in Moscow today.”
Those words could have been written this week as well. One of Yeltsin’s deputies at the time was a former KGB officer and ex-Saint Petersburg municipal official named Vladimir Putin, whom Netanyahu met.
That was a start of a relationship between the two men that Netanyahu had hoped would be highlighted during his trip this week, but which was lost in all the commotion over Mandelblit.
But it is a relationship that has served Israel well and that has held up over the years, despite difficulties and challenges like the downing of the spy plane.
Putin, according to Israeli sources, came under intense pressure from his own defense ministry and security establishment to take a much tougher line toward Israel than he did following the downing of the plane that killed 15 Russian servicemen, and which Moscow indirectly blamed on Israel. The Russian military, fighting alongside the Iranians in Syria, would like to see a much stronger response from Moscow to Israeli military actions in Syria, but it is being restrained by Putin.
The reason is threefold: a sympathetic attitude by Putin toward the Jews, which is the outgrowth of his own personal history and relationship with Jews in Leningrad when he was a child and young man; a respect for Israel and its toughness and determination; and a relationship with Netanyahu that extends back to 1997.
Of all the active leaders on the world stage, Putin’s relationship with Netanyahu goes back further than with any other Western leader, further even than with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin and Netanyahu have spent dozens of hours with each other. They know each other, trust each other, and are open with each other. That is an asset Netanyahu has already been waving in speeches during this campaign, and one he hoped would be highlighted during this election season with yet another visit to the Kremlin.
But it was not to be. This visit to Moscow was overshadowed by the impending Mandelblit decision.