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Netanyahu’s scandals follow him wherever he goes – analysis



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Benjamin Netanyahu’s trips used to be a respite from the ongoing crises and scandals he faced in Israel. Now, those problems follow him abroad.

Throughout Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nearly 16 years in office, trips abroad have often served as a welcome escape from the daily tumult of political infighting and the ongoing crises and scandals in Israel. adsbygoogle || []).push({}); js">

When Netanyahu embarked on a 10-visit to Latin America and the US in September of 2017, he was getting away from accusations leveled by his former housekeeper Meni Naftali, from police investigations into scandals that later morphed into the three major court cases against him, and ceaseless speculation as to if and when then-attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit was going to hand down an indictment.

Four months later, he set off for a trip to India, where he was received like a king. Meanwhile, back at home, news headlines were dominated by stories about his wife Sara, his son Yair, and allegations of scandal involving some of his closest confidants.

Trips like these – to Latin America and India – held immense importance for Israel, promoting trade, explaining Israel’s position, and bolstering the country’s global standing.

They were also important for Netanyahu politically because they shifted the focus, momentarily, from scandals to statesmanship. That was where Netanyahu excelled – holding meetings with heads of state, defending Israel in interviews, delivering speeches – and from his perspective, it’s critically important to remind the public of this periodically.

Interestingly, Netanyahu has been unable to pull that trick out of his hat to the same degree so far during his third tenure as prime minister.

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On Sunday, he and his wife Sara left for a two-day visit to Cyprus, where he will hold separate meetings with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis before taking part in a trilateral summit. This will be the eighth trilateral summit between Israeli-Greek and Cypriot leaders since 2016.

This is also Netanyahu’s first trip abroad since he visited London in late March. During the first eight months of 2023, Netanyahu only traveled abroad on five occasions – once to Jordan and once each to the key capitals of Europe: Paris, London, Berlin, and Rome.

By comparison, in 2018 – arguably the height of his diplomatic prowess – Netanyahu visited 10 different countries and took 11 trips abroad. The previous year, 2017, was similar, with 11 trips abroad and visits to nine different countries between January and August.

That was when Netanyahu was doing what he does best: strutting the world stage, strengthening Israel’s global ties, expanding relations in previously overlooked regions, and leveraging Israel’s technological, military, and agricultural expertise to enhance the country’s standing in the world dramatically.

That he has traveled relatively infrequently this time reflects his preoccupation with domestic issues and a decline in his attractiveness as a leader alongside whom others want to be photographed.

Israeli political crises follow Netanyahu abroad

Regarding the domestic issues, his focus, energy, and time are now absorbed by the fallout from the judicial overhaul plan, low-level politics, and the uptick in Palestinian terrorism. Needing to constantly put out fires started by Yariv Levin, Simcha Rothman, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, Tally Gotliv, and others, Netanyahu simply hasn’t had the bandwidth to deal with diplomacy as he has in the past.

Regarding his attractiveness as a leader, when he traveled to Australia in 2017 and India in 2018, then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi were keen on hosting him because the “Bibi brand” helped solidify their conservative credentials and was good for them politically. Netanyahu’s stature today, however, is not what it was then.

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Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s visit to Cyprus will kick off what is expected to be a busy diplomatic travel schedule.

His trip to Cyprus was initially scheduled for July 25, three days before he was expected to make a trip to Ankara to meet – for the first time – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Going first to Cyprus to meet with the Greek and Cypriot leaders before meeting Erdogan was intended to send a reassuring signal to those two countries that their relations with Israel would not suffer due to Israel’s rapprochement with Turkey.

Those trips were postponed because of health reasons – Netanyahu had a pacemaker inserted at the time – and though the Cyprus trip was rescheduled for Sunday and Monday, no new date has been set for Netanyahu’s visit to Turkey.

If Netanyahu needs any reminder that he shouldn’t sacrifice the strong ties he forged with Greece and Cyprus in pursuit of improved relations with Turkey, photos of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan being welcomed in Tehran on Sunday should suffice.

A few weeks after returning from Cyprus and following next Tuesday’s High Court of Justice hearing on the reasonableness standard law, Netanyahu will attend the UN General Assembly meeting and, finally, meet with US President Joe Biden.

It is at the UN where Netanyahu has, over the years, burnished his reputation in Israel as a world-class-statesman with back-to-back meetings with heads of state and a speech to the world body in perfect English, often accompanied by visual aids, covered wall-to-wall back home. He will obviously use that occasion to deflect for both the foreign and domestic audiences the perception the anti-judicial reform protestors are trying to create that he is leading the country down an anti-democratic path.

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At the end of November or early December, he is then scheduled to make his first trip to an Abraham Accord country to attend – along with a large Israeli delegation – the COP28 climate conference in Dubai.

In addition, he has standing invitations to Morocco and China. If the political calendar allows it, these are trips he would be very keen on taking as they, too, will shift the emphasis from scandal to statesmanship.

In the past, these trips allowed Netanyahu to speak uninterrupted about grand economic policy and Israel’s strengthened status in the world rather than having to address questions about the legal cases against him and petty politics at home.
Those days, however, seem to be over.

Israelis living in Cyprus were planning to demonstrate against the prime minister, much as protesters did earlier this year when he visited London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome, and even more of the same is to be expected when he goes to the United States later this month.

The days when Netanyahu could travel abroad, do what he does best, and momentarily forget his domestic problems are over, as demonstrators against him by Israeli protestors at foreign venues provide a constant reminder of what awaits him at home. Going abroad is no longer as much of a break from domestic political troubles for Netanyahu as it once was — another way in which the prime minister’s third term is turning out to be so different than his first two.

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