After five days in Brazil, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed back in Israel on Wednesday evening – both literally and metaphorically.
Literally, in the sense that he physically returned to the country where he is prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and health minister.
Metaphorically, for the last five days he was far away, in Brazil – far away from Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, from Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Livni, and from the regular dose of criticism on the evening news.
He was off kicking soccer balls with admiring passersby on the beach in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana, and waving from his motorcade to thousands shouting his name in Brasilia. He was up in the clouds doing what he does best: meeting presidents and prime ministers and selling the virtues of Israel to adoring Jewish and Evangelical crowds.
And now it is back to the grind: politics and possible indictments; possible indictments and politics. That will be his bread and butter for the next three months.
But Netanyahu will make sure that this will not be the only staple of his diet. To the best of his ability, he will try to cram in as many high-profile diplomatic events as he can in this short period, working on the assumption that Israelis like to see their leaders strutting proudly, forcefully and unapologetically on the world stage.
And that Netanyahu does well.
So far he is talking about going to Davos at the end of the month to attend the annual World Economic Forum, where he may meet US President Donald Trump and other world leaders. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will come to Israel later this month
as well, providing ample photo opportunities.
In addition, Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro said he will visit Israel by March, giving Netanyahu the opportunity to highlight on his home turf, just prior to the election, the dramatic change that has come about in relations with Brazil. And then, at the end of March, comes the icing on the cake, a trip to Washington for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference and another meeting in the White House with Trump.
THIS TYPE of high-profile diplomacy is something that Netanyahu believes sets him apart from rivals such as Yair Lapid, Avi Gabbay and – especially – Benny Gantz.
He said as much during a press conference on Monday in Rio de Janeiro
, when he was asked about Gantz, who 28% of the population said in a Hadashot News poll on Wednesday is fittest to be prime minister, just seven points behind the 35% who said Netanyahu is most suited for the role.
“The State of Israel needs a leader who operates at a world level. You need to be able to talk to Trump, and able to talk to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he said, his unstated subtext being: “Do you really see Gantz being able to do this?”
Netanyahu quoted Putin as saying that “without the connection between us, who knows if we would not already have been in a confrontation?”
An Israeli leader needs to be able to talk with the world’s leaders, and Netanyahu said he finds himself in situations where the leaders of world powers come to him and ask him to mediate for them between Trump and Putin.
“Can they operate at this level?” He asked of his opponents. “If you ask me, unfortunately, no.”
There is also something else he can do that he doubts his opponents can, he said: Stand up to the rest of the world.
“What the Israeli prime minister needs to be able to do is one thing, this is the test – the ability to say one word, and to stand by it, and that word is ‘no,’” he said.
His opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal, even when six of the world’s greatest powers signed it, is an indication of his ability to say that little word and mean it, he continued.
And this is exactly what Netanyahu, as much as he can, will strive to underline in the campaign: that he has the ability to play on equal terms with the “big boys” at the highest level.
He will be dogged throughout the campaign with questions about free champagne and favorable news coverage in return for favors, about allegations of bribery and breach of trust, and his response will be to highlight his profile as an experienced world leader who has brought Israel international stature and whom other leaders seek out for guidance, friendship and favors.
“Can Gantz do that?” he will ask the country, both directly and indirectly. Is all that worth throwing away because of allegations of gifts from a friend and trying to get some positive stories on Walla and in Yediot
? Do you want to lose all this, he will ask over the next three months, for something as inconsequential and silly as all of that?
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