Like the timeless plays put on here in London, they put on regular performances at the end of 10 Downing Street: On the right side of the street, a small group of Jews demonstrates, waving Israeli flags. On the opposite side of the street, the Palestinians and their supporters turn out for a larger, well-funded protest equipped with posters, loudspeakers, noisemakers and Palestinian flags.
“Bibi is a murderer,” “Kill the settlers,” shouted one Israeli woman, who was among the first to show up. Only among the Jewish people will you find so many individuals who rush to join their enemies. The ritual is repeated every time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his British counterpart.
But inside the famous residence at 10 Downing Street, the situation is reversed. When British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to Netanyahu on Wednesday, she expressed strong support for Israel, with little criticism. The atmosphere was the same at the Élysée Palace in Paris, where Netanyahu met with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, and in Germany at his meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Behind closed doors in these three capitals, both Israel and Netanyahu himself are admired. Outside, however—at the pro-Palestinian protest in Paris or in the form of hostile questions from journalists in Berlin—Israel is bloody. As if that wasn’t enough, on Wednesday the Argentine soccer team canceled its planned match in Jerusalem, throwing the enormous chasm between what happens on the inside and what happens on the outside into sharp relief.
Netanyahu could have gotten his friend, Argentine President Mauricio Macri, on the phone immediately and asked him to solve the problem, and he did. But in a world of images, media and social-media platforms, contacts at the top aren’t always enough to win on the ground. Public opinion is a major factor, and Israel has a problem in that area.
How paradoxical is the situation? A source closely associated with Netanyahu said this week that “Israel is an intelligence powerhouse that supplies lifesaving intelligence to dozens of countries, including countries where there is a lot of anti-Israeli propaganda.” Heads of state thank Netanyahu for the precious intel. But unlike them, the citizens of Europe aren’t aware of what takes place away from the public eye and are incited by the hostile, biased media. That’s a trap, and we must admit that it isn’t anything new.
But the gap between the newspaper headlines and what takes place sub rosa is even wider. Netanyahu set out on his unusual European trip to demand that Iranian forces withdraw from Syria. That was the main issue in his talks with Merkel, Macron and May. As a side note, it’s doubtful that Israel ever had any other prime minister who could have been received in the three major capitals of Europe in a three-day period as easily as he was.
In any case, the only one of the three leaders to publicly align herself with Netanyahu on the Iran-Syria issue was Merkel. “Germany supports the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria entirely, and from southern Syria near the Israeli border in particular,” she said in a press briefing.
According to one diplomatic official, both Macron and May accept that position, although they made no public statements. If that is indeed the case, and considering that the United States and Russia already announced that they were demanding that Iran withdraw its forces from Syria when the war there is over, then Netanyahu has built an international front that will eventually back us.
Netanyahu made it clear that if the promises remain unfulfilled, as often happens, Israel would continue its military strikes against Iranian military stronghold and militias in Syria aligned with Tehran.
“Our policy is backed by actions,” he told the press corps and the leaders with whom he met. After the protests broke up and the meetings were over, the curtain went up on the London shows. Netanyahu, right now, is without a doubt the Lion King. But we need to address our public-relations issues before we turn into Les Misérables.