Imagine that Bibi Netanyahu had stayed away from the Paris march, as much of the world seems to have wished?
More than a week after he returned to Israel, the scorn for the Israeli prime minister’s French trip continues. How, it is asked, did he have the cheek to go when French President François Hollande asked him to stay away?
The story refuses to die, but it is not a real story — or at least, not the way it is being told.
Israel’s prime minister is so insular that he stays at home when the rest of the world marches against terror, the world would have declared had he not gone. (Of course, nobody would have known that he was banned.) He cares more about fighting an election than standing shoulder to shoulder with the international community! So much for his constant talk of condemning terror!
Netanyahu knew that he could not stay away from Paris altogether, so for the short time that he planned to observe Hollande’s decree, he was going to visit the Jewish community later in the week. The world would have had a field day. Columnists would have concluded: So he does care about terror but only the Jewish blood that is spilled. How parochial and narrow-minded to snub the main event but run to the synagogue.
To many, Netanyahu’s whole trip was born in sin, because he originally acquiesced to the French ban and promised to stay away, only packing his suitcase when he heard that his political rivals from Israel were going. He was not prepared to be overshadowed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. And rightly so.
The backlash had Israeli politicians stayed away would have been bad enough, but the backlash had he been absent while two of his rivals had shown him up would have been unbearable. He would have been presented as the crazed political Machiavellian, unprepared to stop election campaigning for even a couple of days as his rivals do the decent thing and pause to mark a world tragedy. (Needless to say the electioneering value of Paris would have been discounted had he skipped the trip).
There was a real story in all of this, but it would have been inappropriate to focus on it as France was in a state of shock. How dare Hollande try to exclude Israel’s elected leader from an event where the heads of the international community were condemning terrorism? How has he the gall to do this in relation to any country, never mind one that lives in the shadow of terrorism? His request would have been unacceptable if not a single Jew had been killed, but after an attack clearly motivated by anti-Semitism, which struck targets with close links to Israel, the attempted ban became contemptible.
Paris feared that his presence could interfere with the message of the event. Imagine the uproar if Israel started excluding world leaders who may undermine its message when it holds international gatherings? How ironic that at a rally championing freedom of speech, Paris tried to silence the voice of a democratic state’s leader, lest it dislike what he has to say.
Netanyahu was right to fly to Paris. If only he had performed better when he arrived.
His need to score a point by noting that Israel “has been has been saying for many years” what others said at the march was obnoxious. And when he took the opportunity to throw down the gauntlet to other marchers from the international community to show the same opposition toward terrorism directed at Israel, his demand was fair, but it was the wrong time and place.
In the same vein his repeated encouragement of French Jews to migrate to Israel was understandable, but not needed at that time. There is nothing untoward about the Israeli prime minister encouraging diaspora Jews to relocate to Israel — it is a key pillar of the Zionism that all of Israel’s main political parties hold dear. And if French Jews really needed the idea to be raised so they could consider it, however insensitive it seemed to the non-Jewish population of France, I would have no complaints. But French Jews are packing their bags in large numbers — without Netanyahu’s encouragement. French Jews don’t need talk about aliyah; Netanyahu was playing to voters back home.
At this time, when Israel is being presented as increasingly isolated and more and more out of touch with the rest of the world, what was needed from Netanyahu was just to join in. To join in the mourning, with gentile France and Jewish France alike. To join in the commemoration. To join in with the condemnation of terror.
He needed to have the restraint, when he was on French soil, not to superimpose his ideology onto the attack and discuss international policy or the delicate subject of French Jewry’s future. This holds true however convinced he was of the correctness of what he had to say.
There were plenty of Jewish motifs in his comments; it’s just a shame that he forgot the guiding Jewish wisdom for times of loss. At a shiva, one does not talk to mourners unless they initiate conversation. The days immediately after a loss are not right for telling mourners what is on your mind, but rather about understanding and empathizing with their pain. He was visiting a country in mourning, and should have conducted himself as such.
Netanyahu needed to be in Paris, but he need to be there as joiner-inner not as a lobbyist, analyst, or cheerleader for emigration. Sometimes, a true leader needs to know when it’s the right moment to follow.