On September 11, in the late hours of the night just before boarding a flight for a historic trip to Latin America – the first ever by a sitting Israeli prime minister – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, stepped out of their black sedan on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, stood in front of a number of Israeli flags and said a few words to reporters before climbing the steps and boarding the plane.
Netanyahu talked briefly about his upcoming trip to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, and about aid that Israel was extending to Mexico, which had just suffered a major earthquake.
But that wasn’t the news. The news was Sara Netanyahu, because just a few days earlier it was reported that a draft indictment was to be served against her for alleged misuse of funds.
Sara addressed the reporters for the first time since news of the draft indictment broke.
“I want to say thank you to the thousands and thousands and thousands of Israeli citizens and people from the all over the world who support me, help me and encourage me,” she said. “I want to say that in good days, and in less good days, your help and your support give me strength to continue doing all the real things I do for all those who need help, which I try to do to the best of my abilities.”
The Netanyahus’ oldest son, Yair, was also in the news at the time, having posted a cartoon of his parents’ critics that was slammed for having antisemitic overtones. When asked about it, the prime minister said, “This is not a press conference.”
Fast forward four months. Netanyahu and his wife again get out of a black sedan on the airport tarmac on a late Saturday night to make a statement to the press before boarding a plane.
Just hours before the flight, Israel Defense Forces attacked terrorist tunnels in Gaza. And just a few minutes later, Netanyahu was to fly off to India, only the second Israeli prime minister to make that journey, and the first to do so since 2003.
But here, too, as illustrated by the one question shouted at the prime minister, interest was not in any of that, but rather about the scandal swirling around his family: this time asking why Yair – whose drunken conversation with friends in 2015 was made public last week – was not joining the trip.
“I want you to think how you would feel if they would trample your children with unbridled cruelty, wickedness and hypocrisy,” Netanyahu said. “I say this not only to the media, I say it also to public figures who click their tongues in absurd hypocrisy.”
And then, with words very similar to those Sara said four months ago, the prime minister added: “I want to take the opportunity to thank those who have given Yair and us a warm and humane hand in the face of the lack of humanity that we have seen. I want to tell them tonight how much we appreciate it, how much we thank them. I want to say something else – you give us a lot of strength to continue.”
Then as now, Benjamin Netanyahu’s significant diplomatic achievements – being the first prime minister to go to South America, receiving a welcome in India reserved for presidents of countries like the United States and China – were overshadowed at home by the actions and alleged actions of his immediate family.
Netanyahu’s trip to India is taking place only a half-year since Modi came to Israel. India, The Jerusalem Post has learned, would have liked to see a bit more lag time between visits, so as to enable accords agreed upon during Modi’s visit – such as a $40 million joint innovation fund – come to fruition.
But Netanyahu was keen on making the visit now. With the news cycle in Israel dominated by stories about Yair, Sara and alleged scandals involving Netanyahu himself and some of his closest confidants, it is critical for the prime minister that the public see him in his role as statesman.
Trips such as this one to India are critically important for Israel for numerous reasons, including promoting trade, explaining Israel’s position and enhancing the country’s position around the world.
They are also important for Netanyahu politically, because they shift the spotlight, ever so briefly, from scandals to statesmanship. That is an area where Netanyahu shines. And from his perspective, it’s critically important that the public be periodically reminded of this.
Netanyahu did not go to India on Sunday to distract attention from problems at home. But if those problems are overshadowed as a result of the trip, then for Netanyahu, that would be a most welcome side-effect.