Strongmen Are No Problem for Netanyahu

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “It might be that we have to take a pill against nausea to receive him,” said Avi Dichter, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Israel’s Knesset. That was the reaction of a senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party, to this week’s state visit of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Israel.

Duterte would seem to be the sort of foreign leader that Israelis would avoid at virtually all expense. He has boasted of his drug war killing thousands of alleged dealers or users when he was mayor. There are indications that he hasn’t stopped his campaign as president. On Wednesday, as he was completing his visit to Israel, a Philippine mayor alleged by Duterte to have been involved in the drug trade was assassinated in his office by four gunmen who barged into the town hall, shot the mayor repeatedly and fled. Equally odious have been Duterte’s many comments about rape, the most recent being his saying that “as long as there are many beautiful women, there will be many rape cases, too.”

Given Netanyahu’s faux pas with Poland’s trying to whitewash its role in Holocaust history, one would have thought that Duterte’s horrifying comments about the Holocaust would have given the prime minister pause. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews,” Duterte once said, getting one of the world’s best-known figures entirely wrong. “Now there are 3 million drug addicts [in the Philippines]. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said, suggesting that he would be pleased to model himself after Hitler.

Duterte had reasons for wanting to visit Israel. Tens of thousands of Filipinos are employed in Israel, many of them as caretakers for Israel’s elderly. So common is the phenomenon that the term “filipinit” has come to mean caretaker, regardless of the caregiver’s country of origin. Sentences such as “my mother’s filipinit is from Sri Lanka” are common, if nonsensical. Duterte promised to meet with some of these foreign workers and to discuss their conditions of employment. But he was obviously much more interested in purchasing Israeli arms.

The question is why Netanyahu would have wanted the visit. After all, when he said, “It would have been more comfortable to receive a president here who had not made the kinds of comments we have heard,” Dichter was reflecting (in dramatic understatement) the views of many Israelis, some of whom protested the visit in front of the president’s house. Duterte’s tin-eared comment in Israel that “We share the same passion for peace. We share the same passion for human beings” made the strangeness of Netanyahu’s invitation even more obvious.

Duterte is but one of several strongmen to whom Netanyahu has reached out of late. The prime minister has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, to name but a few. Duterte is thus merely the latest in a string of seemingly strange relationships.

Netanyahu is hardly oblivious to the critique these visits have engendered, but he is also a master strategist. One of his key priorities is to ensure that Israel is not alone in the international arena. In the United Nations General Assembly, the Philippines (like Azerbaijan) has the same vote as do Germany or France. Smaller countries are also more likely to be sensitive to Netanyahu’s pressure to move their embassies to Jerusalem (though Paraguay’s agreement to do so backfired on him this week).

Israelis may grimace at Duterte’s presence in Israel, but they are all too accustomed to feeling internationally isolated. They do take comfort in their prime minister building bridges to countries around the globe. Indeed, they could not help but notice that Netanyahu, whose hatred of the Iran nuclear deal is legendary, recently remarked that even that deal had a silver lining that led to closer relations between Israel and Arab countries who also fear Iran’s getting a bomb.

Under Netanyahu, Israelis simply feel safer. For all his bluster, the prime minister was able to steer Israel clear of wars that could easily have been triggered by numerous minor conflagrations with both Syria and Hamas (in Gaza) this summer. Netanyahu knows that a leader who keeps Israelis’ sons and daughters out of the battlefield is likely to get their vote.

His strategy is working. A poll this week indicated that were elections held now, Netanyahu’s Likud party would win 36 seats in the Knesset, a gain of six over the number it holds now. The last time that the Likud captured 40 of the Knesset’s 120 seats was in 1988.

Duterte, odious as he is, was part of Netanyahu’s steady progress to the electoral power he seeks. As has often been the case, his plan is working perfectly, and Israelis and foreigners alike should not be surprised if he remains in office far beyond the conclusion of this term.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

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