For jet-set Bibi, the real trouble is all back home
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU is in globe-trotting, super-statesman mode.
On Monday, he landed back in Israel after a rapturous and historical trip to Australia, the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister down under.
His Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, took two days out of his busy schedule to accompany the guest, and the prime minister was given what could only be described as a rock star’s reception from Jewish audiences.
Earlier in the month there were visits to London, Washington and Singapore and, while he was not welcomed with anything resembling the Australian exuberance, they were all successful. Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Michael Pence, Rex Tillerson, Tony Tan and Lee Hsien Loong all greeted Mr Netanyahu as an old friend, praising Israel as a dynamic nation with which they wanted to do business.
Any criticism of its settlement policy and the stagnation of the peace process was kept to a minimum, and usually mentioned only behind closed doors.
There is more to come this month, with a visit to China, where trade is expected to be the main item on the agenda; and a short trip to Moscow, where Mr Netanyahu will meet President Vladimir Putin. Mr Netanyahu will be hoping he can convince the Russian leader to ensure Iran and its proxies are not allowed near Israel’s border with Syria. After the trip to Russia, the Israeli prime minister will head back to Washington for Aipac’s annual conference.
This is how the prime minister likes to see himself: a confident and respected geopolitical leader securing Israel’s interests on the international stage.
With Barack Obama gone, he hopes the Palestinian issue will no longer overshadow his diplomacy, and he can focus on building a grand alliance against Iran and singing the praises of the Startup Nation.
But he still has a government and a coalition to run and, back home, things are far from easy.
On Tuesday, the State Comptroller published his report on Operation Protective Edge in Summer 2014. It was an unwelcome reminder that under his premiership, Israel had fought its longest war since 1949 — 51 days — and that it had been far from successful.
Mr Netanyahu comes in for criticism in the report as having been indecisive and not having explored diplomatic and military alternatives to the approach he took during the war.
He can take some comfort from the fact that two rivals, both seen as future challengers for his job — former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz — are dealt with much more harshly in the report. This has reduced the criticism over his role, but it has boosted another rival.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who as a member of the Security Cabinet clashed with Generals Gantz and Yaalon during the Gaza war, demanding swift and decisive action against the Hamas tunnels, has been completely vindicated in the report.
Another senior minister who was critical of the operation and is now waiting on the sidelines is Gideon Saar, one of the most popular figures in the Likud, who took a break from politics in September 2014 and is now sending out signals that he may make a comeback. Like everyone else in Israeli politics, they are waiting for one very unpredictable man.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblitt has been directing the three investigations that could conceivably result in an indictment of the prime minister. While every day brings new leaks from the investigations and Mr Netanyahu’s predicament seems ever murkier, there still is no smoking gun. There is no doubt by now that he and his wife received expensive gifts from billionaires, but did they constitute bribes? Did Mr Netanyahu’s discussions with Yediot Ahronoth publisher on limiting the publication of the pro-Bibi Israel Hayom include the offer of a bribe? Was the prime minister actually involved in the award of multimillion contracts to a German shipyard during which senior Israeli officials may have received kickbacks? Attorney General Mendelblitt will have to answer these questions with an indictment or by closing the case. Either way, it is a difficult decision with national implications and there will be intense public criticism of either choice.
One senior minister predicted this week that should the prime minister try to serve while under an indictment, all hell would break lose and the coalition may not survive. Sobering thoughts for the statesman at 30,000ft.
If Israel’s PM is indicted, all hell could break loose’
Protesters hold up antisemitic banners during Netanyahu’s visit to Australia
Successful world tour: Netanyahu