by Marsha B. Cohen
Not only was Benjamin Netanyahu an uninvited guest in the arm-and-arm chain of leaders positioning themselves in front of the 3 million plus Parisians taking to the streets this weekend in anti-terror demonstrations. The Israeli Prime Minister was actually asked not to come at all.
He did anyway.
A “well placed source” cited by Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid has disclosed that Jacques Audibert, French President Francois Hollande national security adviser, conveyed the message that Hollande preferred that Netanyahu not attend Sunday’s solidarity march, to which several foreign heads of state were being invited, in Paris. Audibert reportedly explained to his Israeli counterpart, Yossi Cohen, that Hollande wanted the event to focus on demonstrating solidarity with France, while avoiding “other controversial issues, like Jewish-Muslim relations or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The source noted that one of Hollande’s concerns—albeit not one explicitly conveyed to representatives of the Israeli government—was that Netanyahu would try to exploit the event for political purposes. Israel holds parliamentary elections March 17.
Hollande didn’t want Netanyahu grandstanding–particularly by telling Jews of France that their government could not keep them safe from attack and only moving to Israel could–to undermine the sense of national solidarity the French government hoped to promote as a response to the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery in Paris last week. On Saturday, Netanyahu had indeed declared in a televised statement, “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the State of Israel is your home.”
Netanyahu initially acceded to Hollande’s request, according to Ravid. However, when he discovered later that night that two of his right-wing political rivals—Minister of the Economy and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—were themselves going to Paris for the march, Netanyahu changed his mind. His opportunism had the immediate consequence of a hasty French request that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas–who also had agreed to stay away—join the demonstration’s front line as well.
The march, however, proved to be a public-relations disaster for Netanyahu in the opinion of Asher Schechter of Haaretz. News cameras appeared to catch Bibi pushing aside the President of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, to get to the front row. Paris Match would later report that Netanyahu (and Abbas) had been given front-row slots by the demonstration’s organizers, but the optics were not on Bibi’s side. Netanyahu was also caught on camera cheerfully waving to the crowd in response to a pro-Israel shout-out, a seemingly inappropriate gesture that stood in marked contrast to the more serious mien of the other march leaders.
Hollande’s anger with Netanyahu was evident at a post-demonstration ceremony at the Grand Synagogue in Paris attended by several hundred French Jews Sunday night. As Netanyahu began speaking, Hollande walked out. And, as the French leader had not unreasonably feared, Netanyahu used the pulpit to reiterate his insistence that Jews are not safe in France and that Israel would welcome them with open arms. He also couldn’t resist linking the 17 deaths in Paris at the hand of Sunni jihadists to Iran’s nuclear program: “We cannot let Iran achieve nuclear capabilities,” he declared. “Israel stands with Europe, and Europe must stand with Israel [on this issue].”
Besides attempting to use the Paris attacks to his political advantage, Netanyahu’s appropriation of the Paris shootings to promote Jewish emigration from France and Europe more generally has drawn criticism back home. Israeli blogger Chemi Shalev considers the campaign by Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians to persuade French Jews to abandon France to be “no more than blatant capitulation to terror,” whether they go to Israel or anywhere else. “By encouraging mass emigration, Israeli politicians could very well be helping terrorist fanatics finish the job started by the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators: making France Judenrein.”
A Haaretz editorial on Tuesday opined that Netanyahu was playing into the hands of terrorists by encouraging French Jews to pack up and leave. Furthermore, it criticized Netanyahu for declaring that Jews had no chance (and perhaps no right) to live anywhere but Israel in safety and security.
Jews are also citizens of many countries worldwide. And as citizens—not as Jews—they are entitled to demand full protection from their countries, just like the victims of the murder at the Charlie Hebdo magazine, the victims of the London Underground attacks or the thousands of people who lost their lives in the September 11, 2001 attacks. That is what equal citizenship means. But this apparently isn’t understood by Netanyahu and some of the other rightist ministers, who saw the attacks in Paris as an opportunity to promote their election campaigns at the expense of relations between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of France.