Benjamin Netanyahu looking to escape political heat in Israel, experts say
Benjamin Netanyahu and Malcolm Turnbull say their countries have an enduring friendship. Photo: AAP
For all the backslapping over the enduring friendship between Israel and Australia, one thing has been overlooked: on the first visit of a sitting Israeli Prime Minister to Australia, Benjamin Netanyahu appears thoroughly delighted to be away from home.
Facing corruption allegations and having recently endured hours of humiliating interrogations by police amid talk his government is about to collapse, the warmth of his reception in Australia can only be a source of succour.
“We have so much in common, shared values, democracy, freedom, the rule of law,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared on Wednesday. “Two great democracies … each of us big-hearted, generous, committed to freedom.”
But while Mr Turnbull was telling Mr Netanyahu just how welcome he was, back in Israel the talk is of just how much longer the latter can last as Prime Minister. Last month, investigators from the national police anti-fraud unit twice questioned Mr Netanyahu at his Jerusalem residence. He and his family stand accused of accepting thousands of dollars in inappropriate gifts from wealthy businessmen.
Israeli newspapers have reported that Australian billionaire James Packerprovided Mariah Carey tickets, private plane trips and expensive hotel stays to Mr Netanyahu’s son Yair.
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On Wednesday, asked about the corruption allegations, Mr Netanyahu declared: “Obviously I am not going to comment on details, but I will say that I think nothing will come of it because there is nothing there, except friendship, which is a good thing.”
Mr Turnbull, when asked if he was concerned over one of Australia’s most successful businessmen, Mr Packer, being caught up in the investigations, said: “Likewise, I can’t comment and won’t comment on an investigation of that kind, and really have nothing further to add to what the Prime Minister has said.”
Experts on the relationship between Australia and Israel suggest the timing of the visit is at the very least convenient.
Middle East expert at the University of NSW, Dr Anthony Billingsley, told The New Daily: “Without being too cynical, he is looking for a lull from the politics at home.
“He is being investigated for corruption. He comes to Australia, gives a few speeches, everyone says positive things and he goes away relaxed and refreshed. I see reports from Israel he will not last out the year.”
Great honor to be 1st Israeli PM to visit Australia. Met with PM @TurnbullMalcolm & Gov-Gen Peter Cosgrove – two great friends of Israel!
8:28 PM - 22 Feb 2017
Political scientist Shahar Burla, co-editor of the book Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Cultural and Political Relationship, told The New Daily there were activists in Israel trying to have Mr Netanyahu replaced.
“He has spent a lot of time overseas in the last couple of months. He spent 20 hours last month with police officers, grilling him about corruption,” he said. “His political situation is not good.”
Mr Burla said Mr Netanyahu could be charged over an alleged gift he of about $300,000 from one individual, which would likely mean the end of his government.
Dr Billingsley said Mr Turnbull’s enthusiastic reception for Mr Netanyahu and for the state of Israel was driven in part by an attempt to expose divisions on the Israel/Palestine issue within the Labor Party.Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured at a luncheon in Sydney, and Malcolm Turnbull signed agreements on technology and air services. and also discussed expanding co-operation in areas including cyber-security, innovation and science. Photo: AAP
Head of the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce Michelle Blum disagreed, saying talk of Mr Netanyahu fleeing Down Under to escape political turmoil was ridiculous. He brought with him a delegation comprising 20 companies.
“He would hardly travel 24 hours to the other side of the world if there was a political problem at home. He would stay and deal with it,” she told The New Daily.
“The visit, long overdue, is a reflection of the strong relationship that has existed between Australia and Israel across the political spectrum. The business relationship is growing.”