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Israel's Netanyahu Embraces Populist Allies, Driving Opposition At Home


On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek re-election after a decade in power. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been reporting on some of the ways Israel has changed under Netanyahu as the country has shifted further to the right.

This next report looks at Netanyahu's reach across the globe and how he's embraced nationalist leaders.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Benjamin Netanyahu runs a country the size of New Jersey, but he's become one of the world's most recognizable leaders. He's also made Israel some new friends - rolling out the red carpet for leaders from India to Hungary to the Philippines.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: My friend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, welcome to Israel.

Mi amigo, president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro.

President Duterte, welcome to Israel.

Prime Minister Orban. Viktor, welcome to Jerusalem.

Mr. President, my dear friend, Donald.

ESTRIN: Israel knows what it's like to be put in the corner by the world for its policies toward the Palestinians. But Netanyahu says he's changing that dynamic. Two weeks ago, he met President Trump at the White House. Last week, he met Russian president Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin and hosted Brazil's president, Bolsonaro. It's a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.


NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: This election ad says, we've brought an unprecedented diplomatic flourishing. It's one of Netanyahu's talking points with the press.


NETANYAHU: China designated Israel as one of the two countries with whom they have a special relationship on innovation. India, our trade is bursting through the seams.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu says countries are flocking to Israel for its intelligence and security expertise, and for its technologies in agriculture, water, cybersecurity. Even relations with Gulf Arab countries that are technically still Israel's enemies are coming out of the shadows.


NETANYAHU: The new story is this - Israel is a world force in conquering radical Islam. The Arabs get it. The Muslims get it. And they're coming closer to us. Israel is a world force in global technology. Everybody gets that - everybody.

ESTRIN: In a meeting with foreign reporters, he said they should report on that.


NETANYAHU: Yes, we'll talk about the Palestinians. Now ask me about that. This is an extraordinary story. Don't miss it. Don't lose out. It's big.

ESTRIN: But Netanyahu's new alliances have sparked some protests at home.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: Last week, demonstrators chanted outside Netanyahu's residence as he hosted Bolsonaro. A block away, I meet Israeli Esther Barcelone (ph) crossing the street and asked her about the far right - Brazilian leader.

ESTHER BARCELONE: It's revolting because he's a fascist. He's a racist. And I feel that those are the only ones that are our friends now.

ESTRIN: In the last few years, Netanyahu has embraced nationalists, populists and strongmen leaders, like Duterte of the Philippines, who's forces have killed thousands amid a crackdown on drugs and who had to apologize for comparing himself to Hitler. And Viktor Orban of Hungary and Poland's leaders, who have downplayed their country's role in the Holocaust. Former director general of Israel's foreign ministry and Netanyahu aide Dore Gold defends Netanyahu's alliances with these leaders.

DORE GOLD: Israel is not going to get drawn into this whole discourse in the West about populism and populist politicians, especially since the old elites treated Israel in a discriminatory way.

ESTRIN: He's talking about Western European countries, he says, criticize Israel for human rights controversies more than they do other countries. Netanyahu's courting leaders around the world to chip away at the European Union's positions on Israel and to change voting patterns at the United Nations, where Israel is regularly on the defensive.

I met some former Israeli ambassadors at a Tel Aviv cafe to talk about Netanyahu's new alliances. They're old timers who have shaped Israel's foreign relations throughout the decades. Yosef Livne defended Netanyahu's many meetings with Putin.

YOSEF LIVNE: It's a power - the one that calls the shots or most of the shots in Syria. So I don't think that there's room here for lovey-dovey elements. It's real politics.

ESTRIN: Israeli realpolitik isn't new. In Israel's early days, when it was more isolated internationally, it sold arms to apartheid South Africa and Latin American dictatorships. But former Ambassador Barukh Binah thinks that approach shouldn't be necessary anymore.

BARUKH BINAH: In the past, we could not make a choice between friend A, friend B. Whoever would like to be our friends, we would be friends with them. Now, we are no longer bad guys. We are a strong, little country.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu says what's important is a country's relationship with Israel, not its domestic politics. But former Ambassador to France Daniel Shek thinks Netanyahu's approach has risked Israel's reputation.

DANIEL SHEK: I think there's a clear choice that was made by Israel's foreign policy over the last decade, and that is to virtually leave the club of liberal democracies and join the growing - I must say - growing club of populist authoritarian regimes. The accession of someone like Donald Trump has given this trend a big push.

ESTRIN: Ambassadors Binah and Shek, both self-described liberals, hope that after 10 years of Netanyahu's rule, Israel can remain in the club of liberal countries and that such a club even continues to exist. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY CLARK JR.'S "STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.