Last week, I felt a little sorry for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, since I believed, on the basis of the available information, that his visit to the US would be remembered as one of his worst such visits ever.

There were several reasons for this assessment. The first was the fact that it was clear that the protest movement, against the government’s judicial reform/upheaval, and other anti-democratic moves taken or planned by the government in Israel, was planning to follow him constantly and relentlessly throughout his stay in the US, and do its best to prevent his having any moments of grace. 

On several occasions during his trip to the US. Netanyahu expressed his contempt for the demonstrators, both verbally and in motions of disparagement.

In retrospect, even though some of the banners raised, or reflected on buildings (such as that showing a photomontage of Netanyahu in an orange prison uniform behind bars, accompanied by slogans of “Dictator on the Run” and “Welcome to Alcatraz Bibi,” reflected on the former US penitentiary on Alcatraz island) seemed to me in bad taste, I think that demonstrators did not diverge from what is reasonable most of the time, and the impression they left was proportional.

The second reason was the first stop in Netanyahu’s US visit, which was the Tesla factory for electric cars in Fremont, California, where he met with billionaire mogul Elon Musk.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are seen meeting with Tesla CEO and X owner Elon Musk, on September 18, 2023. (credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Among the issues discussed by the two were the judicial reform (in a slip of the tongue, Netanyahu referred to the original reform plan as “bad”), antisemitic content on X (formerly Twitter, which Musk now owns), and AI – artificial intelligence, in which Israel appears to have fallen behind as of late, and which is something in which Musk is highly knowledgeable.

The whole meeting was broadcast on X, and at the outset, Musk, dressed casually, is heard saying to Netanyahu, in his usual rather inarticulate style of speech, that the prevalent view around him was that he should not be meeting with him, and that he had never before come across such a reaction to a planned meeting with anyone. 

This conduct on Musk’s part may be explained by the fact that he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, but even if Netanyahu is aware of Musk’s condition, the meeting could not have helped raise his spirits, adding the fact that Musk apparently did not mention a commitment to collaborate with Israel.

Netanyahu vs. Biden

The third reason was Netanyahu’s meeting with President Joe Biden. For close to nine months, Biden refused to invite him for an official visit to the White House, allegedly because of the judicial reform/upheaval initiated by Justice Minister Yariv Levin soon after the new government was formed, which threatens to weaken the Supreme Court, and other aspects of the democratic system.

The US administration is also known to disapprove of the extreme Right members of Netanyahu’s new government, as well as disrespectful remarks made by several ministers and coalition members, as well as Netanyahu’s eldest son, about members of the US administration.

Netanyahu had placed high hopes on Biden taking the opportunity of his coming to the US to address the UN General Assembly in New York, to invite him to the White House. 

However, despite his efforts all Netanyahu managed to get was an hour-long meeting with the president at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York, to which the American president arrived half an hour late.

To add insult to injury the American media did not bother to broadcast the event, while the broadcasts transmitted by the Israeli channels were of extremely poor quality. Interviews given by Netanyahu to Fox News and CNN were perhaps some sort of compensation, though Netanyahu seemed to be short-tempered in both.

We do not know exactly what was said during that part of the meeting that was not broadcast, and in what sort of atmosphere, especially when Biden and Netanyahu held a tête-à-tête. 

We were informed by Biden himself that the main topics to be dealt with had to do with the common democratic values that stand at the basis of the friendship between the US and Israel, and efforts to bring about the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia for which Israel will be called upon to pay a price in terms of some sort of political concessions to the Palestinians, and consent to allow the Saudis to acquire a civilian nuclear capability. The issue of Iran also came up.

The impression one got in real time was that the meeting last Wednesday was not what Netanyahu had been hoping for, and that the circumstances and physical conditions were much more modest and less ceremonial than what he had been used to in previous meetings with US presidents in the Oval Office.

However, what none of us viewers was aware of was that later the same day Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was about to give a remarkable interview to Fox News, in which he would admit that everyday progress was being made in the negotiations to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations. 

Were Biden and Netanyahu aware of the fact that such an interview was planned? It stands to reason that they were. I also think that it cannot be excluded that MBS was informed that in Biden’s meeting with Netanyahu, the latter had reacted favorably to the prospect of an agreement with Saudi Arabia under the Saudi conditions.

The fourth aspect of the US visit that did not appear to be going Netanyahu’s way, was the speech he was to deliver at the UN General Assembly. Originally, the speech was scheduled to take place on Thursday night, but finally, Netanyahu managed to reschedule it for Friday at 9:15 a.m. New York time – 4:15 p.m. Israel time. 

The timing did not bode well from a public relations point of view, especially due to the fact that in Israel most people do not watch the news just before the entry of the Sabbath. The timing was also not optimal in terms of international media attention, and the assembly was almost completely empty when Netanyahu stood on the podium.

I listened to the speech, in which the word peace was used profusely, and even though it was articulate, as most of Netanyahu’s speeches in English are, it was not very informative, and seemed to focus on not saying anything that might anger anyone, or involve any sort of Israeli commitments, especially since at this point Netanyahu simply does not have any sort of consensus within his coalition with regards to the conditions for a viable agreement with Saudi Arabia, and according to reports the top echelons of the Israeli army and intelligence services, have not yet had their say.

I guess that, grosso modo, one can take Netanyahu’s speech as optimistic, but that it belittled the importance of the Palestinians in the whole process, did not make any sort of link between the internal Israeli legal, social, and political crisis and the negotiations with the Saudis, and while relating to the dangers and promises of AI with which Netanyahu opened his visit, totally ignores the world climate crisis.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu apparently feels that under the circumstances, his speech was a success and not something to be despondent about. The fact that Biden mentioned that Netanyahu will be invited to the White House towards the end of 2023 must have had the same effect.

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge last year.

2023-09-26T01:24:21Z dg43tfdfdgfd