Etgar Keret
Etgar Keret, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rome’s Cavalieri Hotel. Photo by Tal Cohen
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The flight to Rome leaves in the middle of the night. When I finish packing my small travel suitcase, my wife gives me a scrap of orange notepaper. It isn’t meant for me; it’s for the prime minister. It reads: “Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, I beg you do everything in your power to bring peace, for the sake of the future of our children and yours. Thank you, Shira.”

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I find this amusing, and she is offended. “What are you thinking?” I ask her. “That Bibi is like the Western Wall? That you can stick a note into a crack in him somewhere, pray a little and he’ll bring peace?”

“So forget the note,” she says. “Tell him something. Argue. Do something that will get him out of his bunker.”

“People don’t change their views that quickly,” I say. “Certainly Bibi doesn’t.”

“So you won’t succeed,” she says. “What do you have to lose? That you’ll look like a fool, the way I did with the note? So look like a fool, or like a pest. But at least try.”

At the hotel in Rome, Tal ‏(the photographer‏) and I join the rest of the diplomatic reporters, who had arrived a day earlier. They tell me about their flight to Rome on the prime minister’s plane, which from their stories sounds like a real piece of junk. They call it “the drainpipe,” saying the seats don’t lean back and have no legroom. They say they’re jealous of me and Tal because we came on a commercial flight.

We’re supposed to be taken from the hotel lobby to a joint press conference by Netanyahu and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. I ask them if they think anything interesting will happen there − some kind of new initiative, a headline, something that could help jump-start the negotiations with the Palestinians. It takes me only a few seconds to understand they don’t really believe anything exciting will happen here.
Army Radio, for instance, sent its economic reporter. If this had been a trip to Washington, the diplomatic correspondent would almost certainly have gone. But for trips like these − the kind that have to be covered but no one expects to produce any drama that would require the reporter to use his sources and connections in the prime minister’s entourage − even a reporter from a different field will do.

“You know,” one of them tells me, “seven years ago we were in Rome for a similar meeting, something utterly routine. And suddenly, in the middle of the night, [Special Assistant to President Bush] Elliott Abrams arrived − here, in this very lobby − and [Ariel] Sharon informed the Americans that he had decided on the disengagement” from the Gaza Strip.

“However,” the reporter hastened to reassure me, “Netanyahu isn’t Sharon. So there’s no chance anything will happen.”

At the press conference, we wait together with dozens of Italian reporters for Netanyahu and Berlusconi to arrive. Everyone is amazed by the blue-and-white tent the Italians have set up. It’s truly beautiful. I’m particularly impressed by the giant painting behind the speakers’ dais. In it, you see something reminiscent of David playing his harp and, beside him, something that looks like the severed head of Goliath the Philistine − what one might call the roots of the conflict.

When I ask about the picture, the Israelis have no answers, but they’re happy to accompany me to one of the Italian officials. To my question about who did the painting, the Italian answers, with a sly smile, “A good one.” Then he waves his hands helplessly and explains that “Berlusconi likes nice things.”

But after an AP correspondent, who has grown curious about the throng, asks the same questions, the official calls someone to find out. The complete answer will be given to the journalists later, from the dais, when Berlusconi will say he heard that people were interested in the painting. And, after giving the artist’s name and when it was painted, he will add that it depicts a 19th-century bunga bunga party.

At that moment, it will be possible to hear more than 100 journalists laughing in relief. Thanks to Silvio, they will leave here with a headline after all.

Even before Netanyahu and Berlusconi start speaking, one of the people in Netanyahu’s delegation volunteers to explain to me − with somewhat surprising agreeableness and sincerity − how the whole thing works: The Italian reporters will ask two questions and the Israeli reporters will ask two questions. The questions are known ahead of time.
I try to find out whether the reporters will then be able to raise their hand and ask something spontaneous. He says no, and explains: “Bibi and Berlusconi have important messages to convey and this is, in fact, their shared platform for conveying them. To put a leader in an empty studio in front of a camera feels too totalitarian, so they build an event like this where they can go up on stage prepared and transmit in front of the cameras the messages on which they have decided to focus. These bilateral meetings always have the phase of the friendly slaps on the back, followed by the getting down to business, and then comes the phase I call the fax phase...” the man explained.

Netanyahu and Berlusconi go up on stage. They begin with their speeches and then take questions from reporters. It goes just like the man from the delegation explained. The messages are sharp and clear: The problem is not the settlements; the root of the conflict is the fact that the Palestinians refuse to recognize the existence of the Jewish state. What the countries of the world have to do is expose the true face of the Palestinians and force them to recognize Israel not only as just any country, but as a Jewish state.

Berlusconi, who had warmly complimented Netanyahu and Israel from the stage, nods every time he hears one of the messages, and from time to time − before Netanyahu issues some powerful statement, along the lines of the Arab spring turning into the Arab winter if Iran gets an atom bomb − he preempts it by a second and gestures toward Netanyahu like a magician finishing a particularly difficult trick and waiting for the cheers of the audience.

After the press conference, we go back to the hotel for an intimate briefing for Israeli political correspondents with the prime minister. Before we enter the hotel room where we are to meet Netanyahu, we undergo a thorough security check. They X-ray my bag three times. It has a small metal object that could be a weapon. After a long search of my bag, they discover it’s my laptop plug.

The Israeli journalists take their seats around the table and wait for the prime minister. One of them suggests not letting it run too long; if it finishes quick enough, there will be time for a little stroll around the Piazza Navona before the PM’s ‏(people use the Hebrew abbreviation PM a lot, with its vaguely military feel‏) junk heap of a plane takes us back to Israel.

Netanyahu’s team is very friendly and attentive. They agree that, at the end of the briefing, Tal will take my picture with Netanyahu at the request of the newspaper, even though photographers have been banned from the briefing and the shot had not been coordinated ahead of time

I try to take advantage of their willingness a bit more and ask if I can ask Netanyahu only two questions after the briefing ends. The spokesman wants to know ahead of time what questions I plan on asking. I’m not surprised. In the few hours I’ve spent here, I already realize that in a dialogue between a journalist and a prime minister who feels persecuted by the media, there is great fear of an inappropriate question, almost as if I had managed to get into the weapons room.

I present my question. It’s not too difficult, but it’s still one for which the answer is not the need to expose the true face of the Palestinian leadership or, alternatively, that the Iranian nuclear program is not only a danger to Israel but to the whole world.

The spokesman tells me we’ll see at the end of the briefing if there’s time. And although he is very nice, it’s still clear to both of us that it will not happen and I realize that if I’ve made up my mind to try to speak to Netanyahu and look like a fool, I will have to do it in front of all the other journalists.

Netanyahu comes in and the briefing begins calmly and with smiles. The reporters and Bibi complain about the plane. It’s too narrow and the seats don’t tilt back. They took it because Netanyahu had, in the past, been raked over the coals by the newspapers for being ostentatious and wasteful and here we see things come full circle like every good morality tale; the people who wrote about the wastefulness now feel how unpleasant this frugality is for their back. Afterward we talk a little about the Iranian threat and a bit about Syria and how the Italians know how to put on an event, and how in Israel it will take 200 years to learn.

The briefing is already drawing to a close and I half push in and stutter a question. I travel a lot in the world, I say, and hear a lot of people who talk about Israel. Some love it and some hate it. But they all describe Israel as bogged down and passive. The Palestinians can initiate a flotilla one day and a declaration to the United Nations on another, while Israel, it seems, has no plan and can only react.

The prime minister objects and says these are the kind of statements that appear in the newspaper I’m writing for, but that does not yet mean it is true and that Israel actually has a great many friends, although we like to say it’s isolated. I nod and say that without reference to the issue of our friends, it is important for me to know what the government’s peace initiative is and what the plan is that we are promoting to end the conflict with the Palestinians.

The reporters around the table convey to me mixed feelings of empathy and impatience. They look at me the way I looked at my wife 14 hours before when she asked me to give Netanyahu a note from her. I feel as if they like this strange attempt of mine to get a pertinent answer from Netanyahu to my question, but for some of them at least, it’s a shame to waste valuable time on this empty move, especially when the clock is ticking and the Piazza Navona awaits.

The only person who treats the whole thing with patience and seriously is Netanyahu. “This is an insoluble conflict because it is not about territory,” he says. “It is not that you can give up a kilometer more and solve it. The root of the conflict is in an entirely different place. Until Abu Mazen recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, there will be no way to reach an agreement.”

The reporters around the table convey to me mixed feelings of empathy and impatience. They look at me the way I looked at my wife 14 hours before when she asked me to give Netanyahu a note from her. I feel as if they like this strange attempt of mine to get a pertinent answer from Netanyahu to my question, but for some of them at least, it’s a shame to waste valuable time on this empty move, especially when the clock is ticking and the Piazza Navona awaits.

The only person who treats the whole thing with patience and seriously is Netanyahu. “This is an insoluble conflict because it is not about territory,” he says. “It is not that you can give up a kilometer more and solve it. The root of the conflict is in an entirely different place. Until Abu Mazen recognizes Israel as a Jewish state, there will be no way to reach an agreement.”

Netanyahu made similar comments at a press conference a few hours earlier, but then it sounded like lusterless, recycled spin. Now that he was sitting across from me, looking me in the eye and explaining the same thing with endless patience, it suddenly sounded like the truth. Well, not my truth, but his truth.

I continued to nudge him, saying that even if all that was right, I still didn’t understand what pragmatic plan would come out of that conclusion. Netanyahu told me right away that the practical plan for advancing the peace process is to reiterate this at every opportunity.

“You have to see the effect it has on people,” he said, smiling. “You say it and they just remain slack-jawed.”

Just that day, he said, during a conversation with local politicians, he saw it happening before his eyes. Another writer at the table pointed out that we’ve said it more than once and it hasn’t convinced most countries. Netanyahu nodded and said the Palestinians have been spreading their lies for more than 40 years, and lies that have become so deeply entrenched cannot be uprooted quickly.

During the conversation the prime minister also mentioned an article he read about Ireland, which said more than 25 years had to pass before those who had been fighting England were able to moderate their position and become flexible enough to end the conflict. When I asked whether there wasn’t anything else that could be done for the peace process aside from reiterating the truths he announced to the world, the prime minister smiled a fatherly smile and said that sometimes we have to liberate ourselves of the feeling that everything is in our control. After all, it’s impossible to build an agreement on a lie, and until the Palestinians agree to accept Israel − not just as a country, but as the Jewish state − it will be impossible to move forward.

The meeting ended and we made way for the photographer ushered in by the spokesman, as Netanyahu, despite his busy schedule, willingly made time for the photo op. I watched from as close as I could. At Berlusconi’s press conference, I still saw in Netanyahu that slew of cliches that people typically attribute to him: scared opportunist wielding slogans just so he can hold on to his seat. But now, from a distance of just 20 centimeters, he looked like an obstinate and resolute man with an uncompromising, and very threatening, world view. I try to smile, but after this conversation I just can’t summon a smile, or hope. Just despair.