Leaked Video, Deleted Tweet and Polish Crisis: Netanyahu's Turbulent Trip in Warsaw

A string of mishaps and drama reveal the prime minister's true gift of political ambiguity

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, February 14, 2019.
Wojtek Radwanski / AFP

The technical glitch that halted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s takeoff at the end of his visit to Poland, forcing him to wait all night for another plane, was the most fitting final chord of a trip full of mishaps and clarifications – many more than in the storm over the Polish law that captured most of the headlines.

The complications began even before Netanyahu left for the U.S.-led conference in Warsaw, which was intended to challenge Iran in the heart of Europe. In his remarks to the media at the airport, Netanyahu took clear responsibility for an Israeli strike in Syria, contrary to the position of the defense establishment, saying that “we operate every day, including yesterday.” In doing so, he let loose a wave of criticism over breaching Israel’s policy of ambiguity.

The second mishap occurred on the first day of the visit. Netanyahu was trying to evade the media on his way to record a Facebook campaign video with the help of Likud’s new media adviser, who had arrived in Warsaw on a private flight.

But when reporters located him after all, he said the conference was an “open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries, that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.” The statement was published in those words on his official Twitter account in English, where the word “war” received particularly dramatic significance. The tweet was later changed to “combating Iran.”

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That same day there was another glitch when a knot of Israeli entourage members in the lobby of the prime minister’s hotel disclosed the arrival of the Omani foreign minister for a meeting to which the media hadn’t been invited. By the way, it’s unclear why that would be so; ties between the two countries are supposedly already open.

The next day, a scheduling mistake had the Polish prime minister waiting for Netanyahu more than an hour in a side room at the conference. But the strangest element of the Warsaw visit was the leak of a video from a closed dinner the night before for the conference participants.

The affair began with a briefing for Israeli journalists who had accompanied a visit Thursday afternoon to the Jewish museum in Warsaw. Netanyahu opened with a smiling dig at the media. He said he was very disappointed that the press hadn’t found out what Arab leaders had said at the dinner. So please tell us, someone said. Netanyahu answered: I can’t leak what was said, I’m relying on you to be able to. This thick hinting went on for a few minutes and finally Netanyahu couldn’t help himself and said his aides had the material.

Discreet conversation between Arab leaders at Warsaw summitHaaretz/YouTube

When the briefing was over, hocus-pocus, it turned out that the statement to the media on Netanyahu’s meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence actually featured a completely different video. It consisted of remarks by the foreign ministers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia at that supposedly closed event from which no leaks could emerge.

Half an hour of edited remarks that precisely echo Netanyahu’s line that the Arab world believes the Iranian issue is more urgent than the Palestinian problem were posted on the prime minister’s official YouTube channel. The video subsequently disappeared from the web by the same magic as before. Netanyahu’s people scattered hints that this had been a “mistake,” but at no point was an official denial issued.

Only then did the Polish storm break out. In that same briefing, Netanyahu was asked by Haaretz what he thought about the Polish law that permits civil suits against anyone who ascribes responsibility for the Holocaust to the Polish nation, albeit no longer criminal suits.

Netanyahu answered that Poles indeed collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust and he didn’t know of anyone who had been sued for such a statement. His remark, quoted in The Jerusalem Post as if he had said that “the Polish nation” had collaborated with the Nazis, reignited the crisis between the two countries and compelled Netanyahu to issue another clarification.

When all this drama was over, after a replacement plane was found, a moment before the longed-for takeoff for home, Netanyahu’s real talent manifested itself: always having it both ways and avoiding a clear statement. When he was asked to clarify on camera what exactly he meant and whether the Poles had collaborated with the Nazis, he answered “Shir will respond,” referring to his spokeswoman. A grand evasive move to end his grand journey.