Pushy in Paris: Israelis up in arms over PM Benjamin Netanyahu's posturing

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Images of Israel's premier elbowing his way to the front row of world leaders in Paris sparked both embarrassment and amusement back home - providing rich pickings for opponents in the upcoming election.

A welter of headlines and columns were prompted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pushing to the front of Sunday's march in Paris and unsuccessfully trying to jump to the head of a queue waiting for a bus.

Many joked that such "pushiness" is a quintessentially Israeli trait, but Mr Netanyahu has still faced a storm of criticism for his behaviour, with some alleging he was trying to make political hay for the general election due in March.

"We would expect the prime minister to represent us with dignity and not to disgrace us," wrote Mr Shimon Shiffer in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

"I was embarrassed to see the Israeli leader push his way to the first bus of the leaders, and then elbow himself into the front row of state leaders," he wrote.

Sunday's event saw world leaders join several million marching in solidarity in Paris after Islamic extremists killed 17 people in attacks targeting satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.

One of the enduring images from the march was Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas walking in the front row on either side of President Francois Hollande.

Israeli media have reported that France asked Mr Netanyahu to stay away from the march, but he ignored the request and attended anyway.

'TYPICALLY CRASS AND UNNECESSARY'

After joining others at Mr Hollande's Elysee Palace, Mr Netanyahu tried to edge his way into the first bus taking officials to the starting point of the march but failed.

Once he was at the march, Mr Netanyahu deftly manoeuvred his way from the second row to the first by way of a friendly handshake with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita - whose country does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

"It was embarrassing, not to mention disgraceful, to see Israel's prime minister... trying to push his way onto a bus that he was not supposed to board, making his way determinedly from the second row to the row of leaders walking in front," said Mr Ben Caspit of the Maariv daily.

He accused Mr Netanyahu of behaving like he was at an election rally and of "taking advantage of the French in a typically crass and unnecessary Israeli way".

Left-leaning daily Haaretz even compared the prime minister to an unruly tourist.

"Just as you can sometimes identify Israeli tourists abroad by their loud voices, poor manners and gauche behaviour, none of the hundreds of millions of people around the world who watched Sunday's Paris rally on television had any problem locating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," Mr Yossi Verter of Haaretz wrote.

Members of the youth wing of the opposition Labour party even created an online game using Mr Netanyahu's nickname called "Push the Bibi" - in which players have 30 seconds to manoeuvre the Israeli leader from the back of the crowd to the front.

'DOESN'T DESERVE SCORN'

At the end of the game, a message reads: "When Bibi wins, everyone else loses. We need a different leadership that will put Israel in the front row, without pushing."

Images of the leaders' march sparked another story in Israel after an ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspaper airbrushed out Germany's Angela Merkel, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo - in line with a traditional ban on printing images of women.

Mr Netanyahu engaged in a little revision himself on his official Facebook page, neatly cutting Mr Abbas out of photographs of the lineup.

Sources in Mr Netanyahu's office told Maariv that the protocol sent from the Elysee to the Israeli embassy in Paris had stated he was supposed to march in the first row.

Some commentators did jump to Mr Netanyahu's defence.

Writing in Haaretz, Ms Tal Niv said the premier "doesn't deserve the scorn heaped on him".

"It's not pleasant to see him inserting his unflattering hairdo into the crowds at the rally, but the front-row picture... is the picture that could return him to the prime minister's office," she wrote.

"Contempt for his stressed appearance or his pushiness shouldn't obscure the fact that he succeeded in sending a clear message... 'Come home. I'll protect you'," she said, referring to Mr Netanyahu's appeal to French Jews to move to Israel.