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On Tour, Bibi Is All Smiles

New York elite welcome him at the Plaza

Allison Hoffman
July 08, 2010
Netanyahu at the United Nations yesterday.(Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Netanyahu at the United Nations yesterday.(Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this week has been one long, continuous photo-op: Visiting President Obama at the White House; chatting with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America; facing off with Katie Couric on CBS Evening News; kibitzing with Larry King. This afternoon, he’ll be at the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan, where he’ll have the opportunity to reiterate his carefully honed message for an audience of diplomatic professionals. The contrast with Netanyahu’s past visits—rushed affairs conducted mostly off-camera and narrated by anonymous leakers with at-odds agendas—is already stark.

Even his one visit before an explicitly Jewish audience—an hour-long talk last night at the Plaza Hotel organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—was crafted to play to a wider audience. The 200-person crowd included members of New York’s congressional delegation, both Jewish and not—Anthony Weiner, Jerrold Nadler, Yvette Clark—along with former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly. Bibi was introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who recounted the trauma of her visits to Sderot, and by New York Gov. David Paterson, who called him “a visionary” on terrorism.

Here, in a nutshell, is Bibi’s substantive message: He wants to sit down for face-to-face peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as soon as possible; he’s really happy about the new Iran sanctions passed by Congress and the new sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, but if they don’t prove effective at averting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, he reserves Israel’s right to “defend itself,” whatever that may entail; and finally, he really, really likes Barack Obama, and doesn’t know why anyone would possibly have thought otherwise. Meanwhile, he firmly bats away various television interlocutors’ efforts to pin him down on thornier issues like settlements, pre-emptive strikes against Iran, and the nasty words traded all spring between Jerusalem and Washington.

The intended effect of all this is to present Netanyahu—an American-educated speaker of faultless English—and, by extension, Israel, as friendly, reasonable, and familiar. Which necessarily raises the question: What took so long?

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.