Is This Netanyahu's Last Hurrah in Washington?

The aim of the prime minister's controversial trip to Washington is to ensure that next time in town, he’ll be a White House guest, not a private citizen.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks off stage after addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference inb Washington, DC, on March 2, 2015.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks off stage after addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference inb Washington, DC, on March 2, 2015. Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

This could be Benjamin Netanyahu's last official visit abroad as prime minister. For the many who are scandalized by the way Israel's leader is making a speech today in Washington, against the express wishes of the Obama administration and just two weeks before the elections, this is a comforting thought. No more Sara and Bibi abroad with their massive entourage. No more history-heavy speeches, cringe-making jokes and theatrical gestures.

The next time and Israeli prime minister lands in Washington, it could be Isaac Herzog stepping off that blue-and-white Boeing. A much more business-like and low-key affair, without the background noise drowning out the substance of his meetings and appearances.

I covered the last visit abroad of Israel's previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in December 2008. By then he was about to be forced out of office, tainted by corruption allegations. Still PM but very much yesterday's man, he wasn't running in the forthcoming elections. No one really understood why he was even making the trip to London for a couple of days. His meeting with Gordon Brown on Downing Street barely warranted more than a passing mention in either Israeli or British media. Besides the state-controlled IBA, no Israeli news organization even bothered to send a correspondent to accompany Olmert, leaving coverage of the visit to London-based reporters like myself. It wasn't even a footnote in his controversial term. Awaiting him were long days in court and a prison sentence.

If Netanyahu loses the election in two weeks, this will have been the last time he and his wife stood in the international limelight. No more convoys with flashing-lights, rapturous receptions from 16,000 AIPAC delegates, a farewell from the podium in Congress. At least he is going out with a bang.

Next time the Netanyahus see the Potomac, they could be private citizens, with a drastically reduced security detail, no press pack and a radically different schedule. Maybe after getting over their defeat at the polls they will allow themselves to relax a bit, and perhaps even enjoy themselves. Looking at him now, Netanyahu doesn't seem capable of being anything else but the self-anointed representative of the entire Jewish people, but maybe losing his job at the age of 65 will allow him to contemplate a comfortable retirement.

But then, there is at least an even chance he will be back in DC very soon. Like every new or re-elected Israeli prime minister, one of his first priorities will be to fly off and meet the president and discuss the agenda for his new term. This time around, the White House will not be a no-go area. Visualize the photo-op, Barack Obama forcing a smile standing beside the grinning guest he hoped he would never have to meet again. Behind the closed door there will be no smiles, just a tense discussion of how best to deal with the nuclear fallout of the Iranian deal (or the failure to reach one) and renewed pressure upon Israel to make some progress in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. The key message of Netanyahu’s election campaign, implied in his brazen visit to Washington, is that he can withstand this pressure, unlike “Tzipi and Bougie.”

At their next meeting, if it takes place, the president will have less than 20 months left in the White House. Netanyahu will be counting down those months and calculating how to handle the next Oval Office occupant, hoping it will be a Republican, dreading Hilary.

Aside from a tiny handful of Bibi believers, no one actually thinks that whatever Netanyahu says in Congress will have any real effect of the outcome the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Senior Likudniks are quite frank in off-record conversations when they assess how many Knesset seats the speech could shift to their column. The bottom line of this trip to Washington is simple: Netanyahu is there in a bid to ensure he sees the White House from the inside next time he's in town.

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