SYDNEY – About a decade ago a Czech ambassador to Israel channeled his inner Godfather and told a senior Israeli diplomat that Israel’s problem is that it keeps its friends close, but its enemies closer.
What he meant was that while Israel paid a great deal of attention to the countries in Europe that blasted it – such as Sweden, Ireland, Spain, Belgium and France – it expended far less time and energy on those countries, such as the Czech Republic, which actually liked and enjoyed very good relations with the Jewish state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip this week to Singapore and Australia was an effort to alter that modus operandi, to spend time and energy on friends, rather than caustic critics, and to try to bring those friendships up to a whole different level.
Ties between countries are a lot like plants; they need to be cared for and nurtured in order to grow. And that’s what Netanyahu spent his time doing this week in Singapore and Sydney.
In Singapore, an island of enormous wealth and super modernity sandwiched between Indonesia and Malaysia, the very fact that the government invited Netanyahu – despite concern about how this may play in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta – is a sign that the Singaporean government wants the country’s business community to deepen ties with Israel.
And that is not all. That Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke openly in public forums of a defense relationship with Israel – a defense relationship that, up until his visit to Israel last year, was hardly ever spoken about or acknowledged in public – was a signal to his neighbors of his own military capabilities.
Singapore is without military alliances, so it doesn’t hurt Lee to drop a hint of defense cooperation with Israel; it keeps his enemies guessing as to what capabilities Israel may, or may not, have provided the citystate.
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Netanyahu’s visit to Singapore showed the degree to which Israel’s international standing has changed.
If in the past countries did not want to be seen as having ties with Israel, fearful of how the Arab world would react, now some countries – in a not insignificant reversal of fortunes – are highlighting these ties for their own purposes.
SINGAPORE WAS one example, Australia is another. In the days and weeks leading up to Netanyahu’s trip to Australia – as the revelations mounted in Jerusalem of various police investigations, and it became clear that Netanyahu was going to visit US President Donald Trump right around the time he was scheduled to come Down Under – there was palpable concern in Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office that at the last minute Netanyahu might cancel.
And the concern was not without cause, considering all of Netanyahu’s domestic political problems, nor was it without precedent. President Reuven Rivlin canceled a visit to Australia last February at the very last minute, opting to go to Russia instead, thereby infuriating the Australians.
Then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman canceled a planned visit in 2014, as did Netanyahu earlier that same year, because of the tensions that summer that culminated in Operation Protective Edge.
As a result, in the run-up to the current visit, Turnbull’s staff was continuously checking in with Netanyahu’s office to make sure the trip was still on. The last thing Turnbull needed was a cancellation, not because a cancellation with a good reason would have irreparably harmed ties between the two states, but because it would have been politically bad for the Australian prime minister.
One of the striking elements of Netanyahu’s visit to Sydney this week was the time the two leaders spent in each other’s company, and the number of their joint appearances.
Turnbull dedicated nearly two full days to Netanyahu and appeared publicly at his side no less than four times.
By contrast, when Netanyahu went to Washington last week, Trump spent part of an afternoon with him, and there was only one press conference and an Oval Office picture.
While Turnbull used these public appearances to talk about the close Australian-Israeli relationship, the long history between the two countries and their shared values, these appearances bolstered him where he is currently the weakest – on his political Right.
Turnbull became prime minister in 2015 in what has been described as a palace coup against his predecessor, Tony Abbott. After winning the party leadership, Turnbull – a social moderate millionaire who made a fortune in start-ups – squeaked out an election last year and currently has only a one-seat majority in parliament.
His major political threat, however, is not the opposition Labor Party, but, rather, the right wing of his own party, which deems him to be insufficiently right-wing and soggy on issues such as refugees and Islamic terrorism.
And then along comes Netanyahu.
To Australia, Netanyahu is more than just another state leader; he is a conservative brand name. Few people, for instance, could tell you who is currently the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mexico or South Korea, but ask them to name Israel’s prime minister, and more than a few would be able to say Netanyahu.
Whether Israelis like him or not, no one can debate that he is a globally recognized statesman, a brand. People know who he is and what he stands for on issues such as Iran and Islamic extremism.
With his own right wing of the opinion that Turnbull is a bit soft on some of these issues, it helps his cause to be photographed with Netanyahu, who is regarded as rock solid on security, with a clear worldview on the challenges of Islamic extremism. Being seen in Netanyahu’s company boosts Turnbull in the eyes of his public. It also helps him significantly with his Jewish constituency, which is a significant part of the eastern Sydney district that he represents.
Likewise, that some 60 Sydney businesspeople, religious leaders, lawyers, academics, entertainers and former Labor politicians signed a petition against Netanyahu, and that a protest of some 1,000 pro-Palestinian demonstrators took place in central Sydney, is actually good for Turnbull. Their protests against Netanyahu, a man Turnbull welcomed so warmly, reaffirms Turnbull’s legitimacy in the eyes of his own supporters. In their view, if this group is protesting their leader, then he must be doing something right.
Turnbull, moreover, was not the only one to reap domestic benefits from the visit. Netanyahu did so as well. For one of the side effects of Netanyahu’s sudden urge to travel is that the headlines are more about what he wants the public to focus on – Israel’s standing in the world, diplomacy, innovation – and less about what he would like everyone to forget: police investigations and whether Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett did or did not issue him a political ultimatum.
This is not to say that Netanyahu is traveling now to change the conversation.
The trip to Singapore and Australia, for instance, was scheduled way before the public knew anything about bottles of champagne, cigars or Noni Mozes. But as a result of these trips, the conversation is changing. Call it an added value.
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