Barak Ravid
February 17, 2011 - 1:00am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under increasing pressure and international isolation as a result of the breakdown in the peace process. European leaders do not believe he is serious about achieving peace, the Chinese are still furious with him for canceling his trip at the last minute in November, and India has been diplomatically sidestepping his request to visit.

Netanyahu's growing isolation is particularly obvious when looking at his travel schedule abroad. He ventured outside Israel for the first time as prime minister in April and May of 2009, to Cairo and Amman (respectively), for short talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II. During his first year in office, he went abroad 13 times and visited nine countries.

In his second year in office, however, he took only eight trips abroad, visiting six countries. Three of those trips were to Egypt and three to the United States. During that same year, he only visited one major European country, when he attended the OECD conference in Paris, in May 2010.

Netanyahu's only planned trip at this point is to both Sofia, Bulgaria and Prague, Czech Republic, set for the beginning of April. By then, he will have not left the country for five months, except for a quick trip to Egypt in early January.

Bulgaria and the Czech Republic are part of a small group of European Union countries that do not criticize Israel at all, including the West Bank settlements. It seems Netanyahu has not visited major European countries, like Britain, Germany and Spain, to avoid any criticism or political pressure on the Palestinian issue.

In fact, Netanyahu has been getting the cold shoulder from a number of countries. Last year, the Prime Minister's Bureau tried a number of times to organize a trip to India, but the Indian government begged off, citing a crowded schedule. He also wanted to visit Jordan again, but King Abdullah was not eager to oblige.

After months of efforts to secure a visit to China, in October 2010 Netanyahu finally received an invitation. The trip was to have taken place the following month, but at the last minute the Prime Minister's Bureau informed the Chinese that the visit was off - and Netanyahu instead attended the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America. The Chinese were insulted, and the Foreign Ministry believes it's unlikely the prime minister will be invited to Beijing again anytime soon.

According to foreign diplomats and senior officials in Jerusalem, Netanyahu's main problem is that world leaders doubt his seriousness about moving the peace process forward.

Two months ago, Netanyahu met with the Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store, who told him: "I think you're serious, but many of my colleagues in Europe think the exact opposite." Store urged him to press on with the peace efforts.

A lack of faith in Netanyahu could clearly be seen during German Chancellor Angela Merkel's last visit to Israel. She had a tough conversation with him on the Palestinian issue, asking: "What is your plan?" She seemed particularly disappointed when Netanyahu made do with general statements such as "I may make a political speech in the future."

Merkel told Netanyahu he would have to take practical steps, not make do with mere statements. She also made a tough speech in Tel Aviv the day after their meeting, which angered Netanyahu. Neither would admit it publicly, but mutual suspicion and tension had never been as high.

Netanyahu's ties with French President Nicolas Sarkozy are also quite tense, and the number of their phone conversations has dramatically declined. The same is true of Netanyahu's relationship with Italian President Silvio Berlusconi. And European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told him Tuesday that he could not continue dragging his feet, and that he was losing his closest friends in Europe.

The Prime Minister's Bureau responded by saying that Israel has a solid relationship with many countries and the number of Netanyahu's trips abroad is "not a litmus test of ties with those countries," but rather stems from the prime minister's hesitation to travel abroad in light of the burning domestic issues at hand.

"Only a few days ago, Germany's chancellor and cabinet visited Israel. In the coming days the Polish president will visit Israel with his cabinet, [evidencing] the strong relations between the two countries and an agreement to hold joint cabinet meetings," the bureau said, adding that similar joint meetings are to be held with the cabinets of Italy, the Czech Republic and Greece.

"Israel is at an advanced stage of talks with a number of countries, some of which have already approached Israel with invitations - such as Australia, China, Britain, France, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Holland, the United States, Brazil and others," the bureau said.


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