Debunked: Four Myths About Netanyahu’s Travels Abroad

Many criticize Netanyahu for traveling the world in search of nothing but a good time – a rumor that's not only exaggerated, but also misses the point

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Benjamin Netanyahu in Vilnius, August 2018
Benjamin Netanyahu in Vilnius, August 2018Credit: Noa Landau
Noa Landau
Noa Landau
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic travels around the world have raised quite a lot of complaints from his critics, often at high emotional decibels on social network. Four main theories are usually repeated, mostly by his opponents on the left, but not only them.

Here are the four theories: 1. Netanyahu does not travel overseas to work but only “just” to vacation at the public’s expense, so he travels more and intentionally extends his trips to include weekends. 2. His wife Sara joins him for these trips “for no reason.” 3. The costs of the flights are extravagant and ostentatious. 4. He does not answer reporters’ questions, “so why cover him at all.”

Since these issues have raised quite a lot of interest among readers, we will try and answer them here. The author of this article has participated over the past year in eight of Netanyahu’s diplomatic trips and has observed the goings-on from up close, but the answers that will be provided here are also based on a number of conversations with diplomatic correspondents, present and past, and veteran members of Israel’s foreign service, as well as with people who served in the bureaus of a number of prime ministers who are well-versed on the matter.

1. He is 'just' taking a vacation

The current prime minister is also the foreign minister, which increases his number of trips around the world – but not in an exceptional fashion compared to previous prime ministers over the years, from both the right and the left.

All of them traveled around the world to advance their policies and, in frenzied periods, for example during Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak's tenures, even once a month on average. Some claim that this combination of roles actually reduces the number of trips, but this is a question that has no scientific answer since the circumstances are different in each period and influence the type and number of trips needed.

The Netanyahus in Vilnius, August 2018Credit: Noa Landau

For example, visits to the White House and large European capitals (London, Berlin, Paris) have always taken place, but their number has varied and depends on the quality of the relations between the leaders and whether negotiations take place during this same period with the Palestinian leadership.

Netanyahu's many visits to Moscow over the past two years (at least seven), for example, have been directly influenced by the strengthening Russian presence in the Middle East. There is also the regular United Nations General Assembly in New York once a year.

In addition, other trips by Netanyahu are often born at the initiative of the director general of the Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem, who tries to direct Netanyahu to regions in which his presence will “upgrade” or deepen new relations. In Europe, the foreign service directs its diplomatic efforts toward smaller countries in the eastern and central parts of the continent who are members of the European Union and may well aid Netanyahu in breaking the consensus in the organization on the Israeli-Palestinian and Iranian issues.

Resolutions and declarations on matters of foreign affairs require a full consensus of the 28 member nations of the EU, and if one opposes, no matter how big the country is or what its international standing is, that is enough to block such a decision.    

To maximize the effect of the trip, usually a meeting with a number of leaders from the region is organized. That is why Netanyahu flies to countries such as Lithuania (the Baltic forum), Hungary (Visegrad Forum), Cyprus (a joint forum with Greece) and soon possibly to Croatia as well (Balkan forum). Similarly, in order to promote international support for Netanyahu’s policies – which are not always embraced in the two-state solution embracing West – destinations in Asia, Africa and South America are also on the agenda, places where not many Israeli prime ministers visited in the past.

During Netanyahu’s time in office, some of these countries have grown stronger economically and have also become more accessible. In addition to diplomatic issues, security and economic interests are usually promoted on these trips as well. Weapons sales, one of Israel’s business advantages, are often among the promoted interests. 

Netanyahu’s schedule on these trips is usually packed full, if not filled up completely. It includes appointments, meetings, statements, speeches and ceremonies with foreign leaders, representatives of the Jewish communities and sometimes with local businesspeople. In addition, behind the scenes there are numerous telephone conversations and the continuing business from Israel that accompanies him – alongside the internal briefings and preparations before and after every important meeting.

Sometimes, a few hours for a private lunch or dinner for the couple is actually possible. On occasion, a tour of a tourist site too, depending on the destination, usually before the flight takes off to go back home. The Netanyahus did not invent this either – some of their predecessors did the same – and it is reasonable to assume that future prime ministers would also visit the Great Wall if they reached China, for instance. But as a rule, there is no factual basis for the claim that the trips are really only some form of “vacation, unless the readers think that the schedules described above are really a relaxing form of entertainment.

As for the claim regarding the weekends, here too Netanyahu is not different from previous prime ministers. Friday is a regular workday around the world and sometimes the trip extends to Saturday, which is a day when the schedule is confidential because of the fear that the public desecration of the Sabbath will arouse the anger of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel. Is it possible that on Shabbat, under the cover of the fog, Israeli prime ministers – including Netanyahu, heaven forbid, also rest occasionally? It's possible.  

When the Netanyahus noticed Haaretz reporter Noa Landau walking behind them in Vilnius, they offered her a bottle of water. Benjamin Netanyahu joked: "It's part of our attempts to leave the media out to dry"

2. His wife joins him 'for no reason'

Leaders around the world travel with their spouses on diplomatic trips. They include Israel's past and future leaders and foreign leaders visiting Israel. In fact, there was major disappointment in Israel when Britain's Prince William wasn't accompanied on his recent visit here by his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.

There is nothing new in the custom of spouses traveling with world leaders. The major source of anger when it comes to Sara Netanyahu in particular is based on reports that laundry was purportedly sent from Israel to hotel laundries around the world and other scandalous reports about practices such as wasteful use of a hotel minibar. Similar stories have been told at times about other wives. This writer has still never seen suitcases of laundry (despite looking for them), and even if all of this is true, the fact that Sara Netanyahu accompanies her husband in and of itself is not unusual on the diplomatic scene. On the contrary, it is considered more respectable. She usually joins her husband on trips that are more than a day long (and therefore involve an overnight stay), when she meets with the host leaders' spouses.

3. Excessive flight costs

The major portion of the expenses involved on most of the diplomatic trips is the cost of security and flights. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and developments in technology, much stricter policies have been put in place, meaning that the prime minister travels with a large security contingent (depending upon the destination) and with lot of equipment. The prime minister does not decide on costs. The plane on which he travels is leased from El Al, as is the crew and includes not only the pilots and service staff but also a large group of technical and logistical staff. The prime minister doesn't have a say when it comes to those arrangements either.

He can influence related costs such as those for meals, makeup and hairstyling, but they are marginal expenses in the overall scheme of things. Even the most ascetic prime minister would need to spend similar amounts of taxpayer money on such visits.

4. If he's not answering journalists' questions, 'why report on him?'

On the contrary, trips of this kind are actually a golden opportunity to ask Netanyahu, who does not grant many interviews, a variety of questions, including pointed ones. On most trips, there is at least one scheduled briefing for reporters, if not more, when they can each ask him whatever they please – and he provides answers. Some of the responses are "on the record" and can be fully reported on. Sometimes his responses can be attributed to a "political source" (which may require a measure of media savvy on the reader's part, although it is usually apparent who the source is). And sometimes it is "off the record," meaning not to be quoted at all.

The Netanyahus in Vilnius, August 2018Credit: Noa Landau

When the prime minister cannot be quoted by name, that provides him the opportunity to deny reports involving sensitive diplomatic, military or political matters (as is customary around the world), but it can also provide important insights and information that reporters can make use of in other ways.

The prime minister does not respond to questions that he does not wish to answer, as unfortunately is every politician's practice, and there is no way to force him to respond. Netanyahu is more secluded and less accessible in Israel, not granting interviews and only holding the rare press conference. That's the result of years of trauma over the press coverage that he has gotten, along with a deep sense that he has been persecuted and bitterness over a lack of appreciation for his work.

But in the process, the prime minister is not punishing the reporters. He's punishing himself and the members of the public whom he leads. Instead of frankly explaining his motives on a variety of subjects and demonstrating that he is not afraid of answering even tough questions, he hides behind formal, edited Facebook video clips.

And there's also a major myth on the right wing regarding his trips – that he is a brilliant statesman, one of a kind, who is warmly embraced around the world due to his personality. Of course leaders' personalities and capabilities can assist them in their diplomatic contacts, but ultimately regional developments are much more powerful. Previous Israeli prime ministers have been received just as nicely around the world, and it's reasonable to assume that this will continue, because they represent Israel's strength and international ties and not just themselves.

Benjamin Netanyahu is an outstanding diplomat. He is systematic in promoting his foreign policy and is usually successful in advancing his goals. But are his goals worthy? That is a subject of disagreement. Ultimately Netanyahu runs around the world mainly to promote the absence of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, to prove that Israel can flourish in the world even without a peace agreement. Is that what we should be seeking? Is the European Union an enemy that needs to be subdued in part through such diplomatic trips?  It's a shame that the harsh criticism and the stormy debates don’t deal with the goal rather than the means.

Every future Israeli prime minister of whatever political stripe will fly around the world with their spouses, sometimes even on Shabbat, heaven forbid, and their trips will also cost us a bundle of money. But the important question is what policies they are promoting on these trips.