JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be forgiven if his head is spinning.
Having taken the politically high-stakes decision to exchange more than 1,000 Palestinians held on terror charges in Israeli jails for the freedom of Gilad Shalit, a soldier held hostage in a Hamas cellar for the past five-and-a-half years, he might have expected a day or two of reflected glory.
It was not to be.
But if you ask some Israelis, the mockery that has come his way is of his own making. “Bad, bad, bad,” said Ioram Melcer, a cultural commentator for the daily newspaper Ha’aretz. “He just couldn’t get ahold of himself. What dreck.”
Wednesday, the day after Shalit’s release, alongside blanket coverage of the young officer’s bravery and poise, Israeli media and websites were brimming with derisive commentary about the prime minister’s attempts to generate useful electoral visuals out of the homecoming.
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Netanyahu is not a natural gladhandler. In interactions with the public, he often appears stiff or aloof. Among Israelis it is well-known that he suffers from what might be termed a Romney-esque challenge: while objectively electable, he is not much liked in many sectors.
But even his electability is not a given. His ubiquitousness in the media make it easy to forget that he barely made it into office to begin with. In fact, out of the three candidates running in the last election, his opponent Tsippi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party, garnered more votes.
He became prime minister thanks to a pre-electoral agreement with religious parties who pledged, in exchange for generous cuts of the national budget, to support his coalition bid in parliament, thus giving him greater support when President Shimon Peres was set to choose which candidate had the better chance of forming a stable government.
The media boomerang whizzed by Netanyahu even before Gilad Shalit made it home.
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Shalit emerged from the belly of a transport helicopter at the Tel Nof air force base in a new uniform, skeletal and ashen, but clearly in possession of himself. On the tarmac before him awaited Netanyahu, the defense minister, Ehud Barak, and the chief of staff, Gen. Benny Gantz.
Shalit saluted. Netanyahu stood still as a rock. Finally, as the soldier approached, he said, “How good that you’re home” — a line borrowed from a popular Israeli song that has been plastered across the country in recent days. The impression was that the prime minster was incapable of coming up with a single word of his own.
Both Barak and Gantz saluted Shalit and uttered appropriate greetings, Barak simply saying “welcome home,” and Gantz, standing ramrod straight in full dress uniform, “Well done. You are a hero. Be strong.”
But for Netanyahu, worse was still to come. Shalit’s parents’ only request had been to greet their son in privacy. For this purpose they were granted a private room on the base. But as Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, stepped outside the room to embrace his son, Netanyahu appeared to angle himself so as to appear in the resulting picture.
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No journalists were permitted at the scene. All the images were released by the Government Press Office, and it was difficult over the course of the day to escape the feeling that they were anything other than publicity shots for the prime minister.
Within hours, Ariana Melamed, a columnist for Yedioth Acharonoth, Israel's most popular daily, published a blistering column entitled, "Gilad Shalit is not a Mufleta," mufleta being a Moroccan pastry commonly brandished by politicians running for office. (Think of it as the Israeli corn dog.)
“The media circus surrounding Shalit’s homecoming, typical of Netanyahu and the military spokesman’s style, was nauseating and completely staged,” she wrote. “The prime minster acted as if Gilad were an excellent bit of scenery, shoved himself into his father’s embrace and enjoyed a strained salute. This spectacle took place in front of a gaunt and discomfited Gilad, who only wanted to breathe free.”
Lauren Gelfond, a cultural writer, posted a question on her Facebook site: “All the photos being released are with Netanyahu in the center. They can't release a humanitarian pic of him hugging his family without it being a photo-op for government officials?”
Late night news host Guy Pines expressed bewildered astonishment at the 37 times Netanyahu uttered the word "I" in his brief comments to the press before departing the air force base.
For example, "I saw the need to return home someone whom the State of Israel had sent to the battlefield. As an IDF soldier and commander, I went out on dangerous missions many times. But I always knew that if I or one of my comrades fell captive, the Government of Israel would do its utmost to return us home, and as prime minister, I have now carried this out."
Facebook and media forums quickly took over, with the metaphor of Netanyahu as Forrest Gump, omnipresent but unwanted, quickly winning the day. “Bibi Gump,” referring to Netanyahu’s nickname, was one of the first.
Israel’s respected “Captain Internet,” the technology magazine of the highbrow Ha’aretz, published a story about the viral phenomenon under the headline, “Netanyahu in the Role of Israel’s Forrest Gump.”
Following suit, a premier media site, “Khorim Bareshet” (Holes in the Net) came out with “Netanyahu is the New Forrest Gump,” illustrated with photoshopped images of the smiling Netanyahu in various historical and iconic photographs.
Soon Netanyahu, formerly an American citizen, found himself inserted into Mount Rushmore.
And while he is no Francophile, another cheeky Israeli saw fit to locate him behind the Mona Lisa.
Who knows where Bibi will find himself next.