Netanyahu’s foreign policy achievements overshadowed by domestic tumult

The premier’s trip was punctuated by Israeli protesters at every stop, a reminder that the stalled judicial overhaul is draining his political capital to get things done in Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s week in the U.S. would, under normal circumstances, be considered a successful one for the leader whose campaign ads boasted that he is in “another league” when it comes to foreign affairs.

But despite his many diplomatic deliverables, he couldn’t escape his volatile political situation back home. His trip was punctuated by Israeli protesters at every stop, a reminder that the stalled judicial overhaul is draining his political capital to get things done in Israel — with polls showing his right-wing coalition would lose many seats to the opposition, if an election were held now.

The list of Netanyahu’s accomplishments on the trip was significant. He met with billionaire Elon Musk, and showcased a sophisticated understanding of the national security implications of AI, both in his one-on-one conversation with Musk and at a subsequent panel featuring Open AI President Greg Brockman and MIT professor Max Tegmark. Senior sources in his delegation said that the billionaire is considering opening a research and development center in Israel, one of Netanyahu’s goals for the visit and a potentially big economic achievement.

Then, there were the high-profile diplomatic meetings on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York: President Joe Biden invited Netanyahu to the White House by the end of the year, and promoted the strength of U.S.-Israel ties. Biden added he was optimistic about the prospects for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia — a top priority for Netanyahu. 

Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has not held back criticism of Israel, called his meeting with Netanyahu good. It was the first meeting by any Israeli prime minister with Zelensky since the Russia-Ukraine war started. And Netanyahu’s first-ever meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended with plans for the leaders to visit each other’s capitals. 

Netanyahu’s U.N. General Assembly speech on Friday will focus on Iran’s barring of U.N. nuclear inspectors, hostage diplomacy and other malign acts, as well as the prospects for peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. His U.N. speeches have typically been memorable — from bringing a cartoon nuclear bomb illustration to underscore the Iranian nuclear threat to rhetorically wagging his finger at the world for double standards against Israel.

These are the kinds of weeks that end up as montages in Likud campaign ads.

But for all the accomplishments abroad, Netanyahu is facing major political headaches back home. The judicial reform issue, his unruly coalition and the protesters against them overshadowed any efforts the prime minister made in the international arena.

Everywhere Netanyahu went this week, the protesters were there: brandishing signs and sounding vuvuzelas at Ben Gurion Airport, at San Jose Airport, at his hotel in San Jose, at his hotel in New York and at Biden’s hotel half a mile away. They projected a picture of Netanyahu in an orange prison jumpsuit onto Alcatraz and displayed images of him in the same uniform transplanted into classic paintings outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 20: Rabbi Rebecca Weintraub attends The New York Protest Movement as they welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu to his meeting with President Biden by demanding Democracy and yelling “Shame!” on September 20, 2023 in New York City.

The protests, even though they were easy for Netanyahu to avoid, were a reminder of lingering questions about the prime minister’s stalled judicial overhaul efforts.  

By talking to Musk first, Netanyahu attempted to seize control of the narrative. 

The billionaire claimed that his Tesla staff complained more about his decision to talk policy with Netanyahu than anything else he had ever done. Unlike in most media interviews with Netanyahu in recent months, the prime minister was able to make his case for judicial reform without interruption or pushback, and once Musk checked that box, he moved on without any further questions.

The tactic of meeting Musk first in order to start the trip to the U.S. on a positive note may have been more successful if Netanyahu hadn’t self-sabotaged on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport. When reporters asked what he thought about the protesters, he said that he is used to demonstrations against Israel at the U.N., but that these are Israelis “joining up with the PLO and Iran.” The remarks set off a firestorm at home while Netanyahu was on the 15-hour flight to California.

In New York, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz asked Netanyahu about the judicial reform issue in private; Biden referred to it obliquely yet obviously in his public remarks.

“We’re going to discuss some of the hard issues, that is upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including the checks and balances in our systems and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution, and ensuring that Iran never, never acquires a nuclear weapon,” Biden said, elevating the state of Israeli democracy to a concern at the level of core national security issues for Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, for his part, tried to reassure Biden that Israel is and will continue to be a democracy.

Biden invited Netanyahu to the White House later this year, nearly a year after Netanyahu’s return to office. The invitation was not previously forthcoming, to the prime minister’s great frustration, because of the president’s vocal opposition to the judicial reform and concern about extremist figures in Netanyahu’s coalition.

Those figures continued to stir up trouble while Netanyahu was away, briefing reporters that they will not allow “a second Oslo” in exchange for peace with the Saudis and praising a murderer of Palestinians. 

Senior officials in Netanyahu’s delegation emphasized that the discussion over judicial reform talk took up only a small part of his meetings — but they could not pretend that it wasn’t a part of the discussion. And the Israeli media honed in on any word about the domestic strife far more than international affairs. 

The polls back home continue to reflect a sharp drop in public approval for this 64-seat coalition, with Channel 13 giving it 53 seats if there were an election last week, and Channel 14 giving it 56 seats. In the Channel 14 poll, Likud dropped from 32 to 30 seats, but on Channel 13, Netanyahu’s party fell to 25 seats and would no longer be the largest faction in the Knesset, trailing Benny Gantz’s National Unity party.

A senior Israeli diplomatic source lamented the focus on the judicial reform and opposition to it at home and abroad, pointing to Netanyahu’s successful meetings this week and saying that “there is this idea as though we’re isolated because of the protests and Israel’s position in the world is damaged. That is really untrue.”

The reality is that Netanyahu, always adept in the international arena, has been spending a large part of his time trying to find a way out of the judicial overhaul stalemate, about which he has shown little enthusiasm. That has kept him from focusing on what he cares about most: a historic normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, the Iranian threat and bringing more business to Israel. 

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