On Israel Trip, De Blasio Walks on Eggshells

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio just concluded a 3-day visit to Israel at a time of increased violence and deadly terrorist attacks across the country.

The mayor’s trip went well in general, considering he is mayor of New York City, and the publicity he has received. But the trip missed some sparks as he sought to satisfy everyone at the same time.

In his public remarks, de Blasio seemed to try to balance his statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to satisfy all sides. “I think it’s important as an outsider to not claim to know more than I do,” he told reporters on Saturday during a field trip with Israeli Arab and Jewish kids. The comments were a stark contrast to remarks he made just a few months ago, in which he questioned Netanyahu’s commitment to pursue a peaceful settlement and an end to the conflict with the Palestinians.

On Saturday night, after visiting terror victims at Hadassah hospital, he proclaimed, “We understand that any acts of violence against civilians. We have to condemn it, and we have to fight to stop it, because there can’t be peace when civilians are wantonly attacked just for going about their business.”

In the readout of the mayor’s meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the mayor’s spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick noted that the two leaders “discussed the current security situation, New York City’s solidarity with Israel at this difficult moment, and the continued hope for peace.” The prime minister’s office, however, didn’t even bother to send out a statement, publish a photo, or even a tweet about the meeting.

But Netanyahu himself gave us a preview of what was an indication as to what he would tell his guest in their private meeting. “Look outside the window. That’s a settlement there,” Netanyahu said while he was waiting for de Blasio to enter the room, pointing to Gilo, an Israeli neighborhood in the south-western East Jerusalem. “That’s Gilo – it’s part of Jerusalem, and it’s described as a settlement.” As de Blasio entered, the prime minister remarked, “Good to see you. God, you’re tall.”

The message coming out of the trip was confusing at some point. While the original NY Times report cited sources within the administration that a trip to Ramallah was not planned, after it was initially considered, due to security reasons, Haredi Israeli news sites ran with the story on Sunday implying that the mayor was just hours away of travelling to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian officials. Nobody seemed to be bothered about the inaccurate information that spread like fire.

De Blasio managed, unintentionally, to make the host of his trip, Jack Rosen, gasp when he mentioned the American Jewish Committee’ (AJC Global) mayors initiative for fighting antisemitism towards the end of his keynote address at the American Jewish Congress Conference of Mayors. And even though the AJC did not sponsor this trip, it was Rosen who arranged the Israeli premier to find time on his Sunday schedule to meet with de Blasio. “I told the Prime Minister’s office that they should have a one-on-one meeting,” said Rosen.

The mayor smartly maneuvered between his political affiliation and his longtime supporters who joined him on the trip, keeping some distance from their own views on Israel. This gave the impression that he’s not being guided by them by any shape or form.

In the hotel lobby, Rosen told Jewish Insider that the reason for inviting de Blasio in the first place was to give the conference a higher profile, identifying the NYC mayor as a leader with a national platform that could ultimately strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. He said that de Blasio was given the invitation a while ago and never declined it. But the idea of meeting with Arab children and meeting with the Mayor of Tel Aviv also added a meaning to the trip, Rosen said. “[Huldai] is probably more progressive than de Blasio himself,” he remarked. “I think he saw a progressive Israeli mayor, who doesn’t agree with the current coalition. And then he saw Barkat (the mayor of Jerusalem), who’s more conservative, with a different standpoint.” He stressed, “It is fine for most Israelis and a majority of American Jews to meet with Israeli Arabs. And, most of the time it was okay to go to Ramallah. It’s fine to do it. But I think when Abbas is inciting the Palestinians, then, I think it’s a different kind of message.”

Rosen added that he commended the mayor for reaching out to the Hand in Hand school, during a Shabbat dinner with Jewish leaders. “I thought they’d throw the gefilte fish at me,” he joked. “But after that they all told me ‘we are glad you said that.’”

Overall, it should be noted, de Blasio was very well received, and the message his visit sent was heard loud and clear.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s visit last year to Israel was also timed to express solidarity with Israel, leaving supporters satisfied with his choice a few months before his reelection. But at the time, the governor went with an entire delegation that included legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle, but also business people from across the State. What was more striking in that trip was the kind of reception he received from the Israeli government. Unlike the photo spray de Blasio got in the cabinet room, a setting reserved for larger delegations and U.S. House Representatives, Cuomo was welcomed by Netanyahu is his office before the two walked out to a preset podium and issued lengthy statements to the press – a setting reserved for heads of state. Cuomo also capitalized on the trip weeks later, as he met with Jewish leaders for a briefing, as well as holding a press briefing to highlight the visit and the implications it had in reinforcing the friendship between New York and Israel.

A City Hall spokesperson indicated that de Blasio would likely do the same.

Nonetheless, the idea that the mayor of a city that represents the largest Jewish constituency outside of Israel took a trip to the Jewish State in these challenging times is reflective of the strong bond that exists between the political leadership in the United States and the State of Israel on every level.

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