Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a barrage of criticism over his visit to Paris during the weekend to honor the victims of last week’s attacks. Netanyahu stoked controversy by welcoming French Jews to emigrate to Israel, and reportedly racked up a $177,000 bill for the flight -- but he was never supposed to make the trip in the first place.
France’s President François Hollande requested that Netanyahu not attend Sunday’s march against terror out of concern that the Israeli leader’s presence would distract attention toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or other controversial issues, according to left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing an unnamed Israeli source who was familiar with the communication. Netanyahu agreed at first, Haaretz reported, and his office issued a statement saying that “security difficulties” prevented him from attending. But he reportedly changed his mind once he learned that two political rivals -- Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett -- would be going.
France had originally urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to come to the march either, but upon hearing of Netanyahu’s decision, extended him an invitation as well. The two leaders both wound up in the front row of the march, separated by four other world leaders, including Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Before departing for Paris, Netanyahu issued a statement to reporters saying that Israel was preparing for new Jewish immigrants from Europe in the wake of last week’s massacre at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a hostage crisis in a kosher delicatessen. “All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms,” he said. “We will help you in your absorption here in our country, which is also your country.” He echoed the comments at the Grand Synagogue in Paris following Sunday’s march. Media outlets pointed out that Hollande made an exit just as Netanyahu took to the podium.
Netanyahu’s comments came as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared a mass emigration of Jews would be a “failure” for France. “The Jews of France are profoundly attached to France but they need reassurance that they are welcome here, that they are secure here,” he said.
Israel news website Ynetnews reported that opposition politicians were also criticizing Netanyahu over the cost of his flight with Lieberman, which it said totaled $177,000, not including the cost of accommodations for the prime minister’s security team.
Relations between Israel and France have been tense in recent weeks after France voted in support of a draft resolution on Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. The resolution fell short of the nine votes it needed to pass the Security Council.