NEW YORK — It was not the exhibition, with its large glossy photos of ancient artifacts highlighting the 3,000-year-old Jewish link to Jerusalem, that drew the television cameras and reporters to the United Nations on Thursday. It was the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a controversial and charismatic figure who always puts on a good show.
The long-serving Israeli leader, who arrived in the United States on Sunday for a five-day visit, has received a raucous welcome both from a dizzying array of leaders, including President Trump, and from crowds at the public forums at which he has spoken. At a conference of AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States, plenty of standing ovations and cries of “We love you, Bibi” — Netanyahu's nickname — were directed at him.
But it was perhaps his short speech at the U.N. exhibit and the press melee that followed that best summed up the gap between Netanyahu’s successes in the United States this week and the growing dissent back home, especially in the media.
As he wrapped up his glowing praise for the exhibit — which is clearly a dig at a U.N. resolution passed in December that condemned the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — American reporters snapped up the opportunity to ask Netanyahu about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians and his views on Iran, an archenemy of Israel.
In contrast, members of the Israeli press in attendance started lobbing questions at him and his wife, Sara, about the criminal investigations dogging him at home and a coalition crisis that threatens his government’s stability.
Police have questioned Netanyahu multiple times in three criminal probes against him. Last month, they recommended to the attorney general that he be indicted in two of those corruption investigations. This week, a former close adviser turned state’s witness. This comes as two other Netanyahu aides have handed over information on their former boss to authorities.
Who knows what further awaits Netanyahu after he returns home Friday?
In the United States, he has smoothly managed to play down the allegations and wave off questions from reporters, insisting that he is still strong in the polls and that he has plenty of supporters. He has repeatedly said that investigators will find nothing and maintained that he wants to keep his government intact until its term ends in 2019.
But with each passing day of this trip and each question about the scandals, his denials have grown fiercer. On Thursday, when reporters asked the same questions again, this time with the cameras rolling, he hit back harder than before, accusing the press of unjust attacks.
“I will say one thing: We are constantly under attack, but we will stand up for justice and tell the truth,” Netanyahu said in Hebrew, responding to Israeli journalists. “I am telling the truth and, more than that, I will tell you something you may not like: We have received more support from the public, for me, for my wife and for my family, than I ever remember.”
Netanyahu had earlier accused Israeli reporters of not focusing on the “more important” issues that he discussed with Trump and other U.S. leaders.
The Israeli leader said he had urged Trump to either “completely fix or completely nix” the nuclear deal that the United States and other world powers reached with Iran three years ago. The two also discussed Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, he said, although he added that he had not seen a draft of any peace plan from the White House.
Earlier in the day, as Netanyahu opened the exhibit at the United Nations, he said, “I’ve had remarkable meetings this week with the president of the United States, leaders of Congress, the Senate and House, Republicans and Democrats, congressmen and senators. And there was a wonderful crowd at AIPAC, 18,000 strong, and I met with 500 business leaders. I had a very simple message for them. I told them to invest in Israel because it is the future.”
Only time will tell whether his own future is as bright.