Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was thrown on the defensive Monday after his trip to Paris to participate in a mass solidarity march was widely portrayed in news accounts as riddled with gaffes that offended his French hosts.
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had attended the rally despite a request by French President Francois Hollande that he not come and that he’d irked French officials with his call for French Jews to emigrate to Israel following the deadly attack Friday on a kosher supermarket.
The controversy in Israel surrounding Netanyahu’s trip contrasted with criticism in the United States of President Barack Obama for not sending a high-level American representative to the Paris rally, which was attended by political leaders from some 50 countries.
Netanyahu’s office initially had said he wouldn’t attend the gathering for security reasons, but the decision was reversed Saturday night after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, jockeying with Netanyahu in Israel’s election campaign, said they’d go.
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The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Netanyahu’s decision to participate came despite a request relayed from Hollande not to attend so as not to draw attention at the unity rally to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Netanyahu’s move angered French officials, who responded by inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the paper said.
At a meeting with French Jewish leaders Monday, Netanyahu defended his trip in what appeared to be a reaction to the news reports back home.
“As soon as the security problem was resolved, allowing me to come, it was natural that I come here, it was important that I come here, and therefore I came,” he said. “There is great significance to what the world saw: the prime minister of Israel marching with all the leaders of the world in a united effort against terrorism.”
Israeli columnists skewered Netanyahu after images from the rally showed him maneuvering from the second row to the front of the march with his bodyguards, joining a line that included Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Abbas and Malian President Boubacar Keita.
“Only our leaders know the elbowing drill,” wrote Nahum Barnea in the mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot after describing how Netanyahu had used a handshake with Keita to position himself in the front row.
An official in Netanyahu’s entourage said the prime minister was simply taking his assigned place among the heads of state who formed the first line of the march according to the planned protocol.
Visiting the site of the supermarket attack before returning to Israel on Monday, Netanyahu said: “I will always see to it that Israel marches in the front row of nations when it comes to its security and future.”
More criticism was leveled at Netanyahu for his invitation to French Jews to move to Israel, remarks that seemed to suggest France could not protect its Jewish citizens.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in a television interview Monday that he did not like Netanyahu’s comments and had told him so.
Hollande pointedly left a memorial ceremony at a Paris synagogue Sunday night before a speech by Netanyahu.
Responding to the French displeasure, Netanyahu revised his synagogue remarks to include an assertion that French Jews have “the full right to live in peace and security as citizens with equal rights anywhere you choose, including here, in France.”
But he repeated his invitation to come to Israel, saying French Jews now have “the privilege of joining their Jewish brethren in their historical homeland.”
“God willing,” he said, “many of you will reach our common home.”
Netanyahu’s message, at a time when French Jews are reeling from the latest attacks and alarmed by rising anti-Jewish sentiment among Islamist radicals, drew indirect criticism from Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, whose position is ceremonial but carries moral authority.
“It is important that immigration to Israel will not be an immigration of fear, but of choice, an immigration born out of a positive Jewish identity, out of Zionism,, and not because of anti-Semitism,” Rivlin said Sunday.
Similar sentiments were voiced by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body that helps Jews emigrate to Israel.
“It’s always right to express our position that it is best for a Jew who wants to take an active part in our history to be in Israel,” he told Israel Radio on Sunday. “It is wrong to think that terrorist attacks and anti-Semitism in various forms are our allies. Certainly not.”