One week has passed since the Paris rally in which more than 1 million individuals affirmed their solidarity against terrorism. Interestingly, the most current thread of conversation about the march these days seems not to be what was accomplished, and how it has cemented national policies against terrorism, but which heads of state attended (or didn’t attend) the rally.
Both have received vociferous criticism for their choice of action that week: Obama for what has been assumed to be his unilateral decision not to attend, and Netanyahu for his insistence to take part in a Paris rally in which he was clearly not welcome.
The truth is, heads of states rarely operate with that kind of autonomy – certainly when it comes to world events on foreign soil. There are phone conversations such as was alleged to have taken place between President François Hollande and Netanyahu (and between Hollande and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who didn’t attend, but sent an emissary as well). There are security briefings, tactical assessments and worst-case scenarios that play out in briefing rooms before such decisions are made. The choice of whether to attend an impromptu rally marching through an open, heavily guarded street arm-in-arm with more than 40 other heads of state is rarely one leader’s unilateral decision.
It’s true: Obama likely made his decision based on risk assessment. But when Paul Waldman suggested in last Monday’s Washington Post op-ed that “The security requirements necessary to protect him make it impossible,” I winced. Every country faces a security nightmare during diplomatic liaisons, and certainly Israel’s was no less than America’s. But Hollande’s concern about the focus of the rally being overtaken by political issues probably prompted him to appeal to Obama to stay home. And Obama would have been hard-pressed not to see the point.
But Netanyahu also was working to mitigate risk – the risk that France’s Jewish population would be perceived by outside forces of being unprotected and vulnerable. It had happened during the Shoah nearly a century earlier, and now, more than ever, convincing the world that Jews everywhere were not only watching, but were only a diplomatic flight away was important.
Still, as Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz pointed out in last Monday’s editorial, there was also far more at play here with Netanyahu’s breezy arrival to Paris than whether Paris’ Jews felt vulnerable and exposed. Given the upcoming elections, there was risk at home for Netanyahu as well, if he didn’t go.
What is interesting about the dynamics of the Paris march isn’t who attended and who didn’t or what controversies played out at home, but how those decisions likely came to be made. Pundits didn’t miss noting the strange assortment of bedfellows in the Paris march. But few questioned whether, after all the risk assessments had been done, it was actually safe to congregate some 40-50 heads of state on the streets of a city that had just been attacked by terrorists.
That’s because we wanted that particular rally to succeed. In our dismay and horror of what had just occurred days earlier, we desperately wanted to know that the world was unified. We wanted to know that world leaders would bravely stand together as one, arm-in-arm and speak out against terrorism. We wanted to believe that there was no dividing line between the politicians that represented us. And we needed to hear that global solidarity and fraternité meant that everyone was included in that call for unity, even those countries and those governments we didn’t trust.
Hollande took a significant risk in calling for a rally that permitted global leaders to march together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in Paris. But I suspect it was a risk he felt he could justify based on the people he had intended to invite: a limited cadre of global representatives that could convince onlookers that the world leadership truly rejected terrorism. It just so happened that many of the governments that were represented that day also had strained relations with Israel.
Still, Hollande’s unifying rally took enormous chance. Had the unthinkable occurred, and terrorists had been able to attack the march, there could have been devastating consequences for the country, not to mention the EU leadership as a whole.
What isn’t clear is why Hollande didn’t use the opportunity he had at his disposal at the time. Forty members of a disparate world leadership with their security guards nervously standing by is a rallying call to solidarity, but two, with the power to be heard as well as be seen half-way around the would have been galvanizing.
Netanyahu and Abbas, who were kept buttressed apart by world leaders the entire photo shoot, had the power to convey the impossible. And they wouldn’t even have had to link arms. Seeing them standing together, shoulder-to-shoulder, unified in a denouncement of terrorism and an aspiration for peace, would have been enough.