Netanyahu: The Israeli Leader No President Can Stomach

Netanyahu sleeps with both eyes open-- one watching Israel's enemies, the other fixated on America.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu last spoke to a joint session of Congress back in May 2011, the Israeli leader received a stunning 29 standing ovations, prompting ridicule back home (one prominent Israeli columnist called it a “mark of shame” for the United States).

But while Netanyahu has long been a darling of Capitol Hill (he’ll be only the second foreign leader after Winston Churchill to have addressed a joint session of Congress on three separate occasions), this popularity has never extended across Pennsylvania Ave.

While all Israeli leaders have clashed with their American counterparts, Netanyahu’s confrontations have been especially frequent and often gone beyond mere policy disputes. “It’s more than just political differences” one former U.S. diplomat with extensive experience managing the U.S.-Israeli relationship told me.

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Indeed, in speaking with former senior U.S. and Israeli officials, reviewing the memoirs of key participants, and parsing newspaper and magazine accounts, a clear pattern emerges of Netanyahu’s policy disagreements with his American counterparts being severely inflamed by Bibi’s abrasiveness, whether it's his public remarks or willingness to openly exploit America’s domestic politics. 

This dates back to the George H.W. Bush administration when Bibi was deputy foreign minister in the Yitzhak Shamir government. Having spent much of his childhood in the United States, Netanyahu often served as Israel’s primary spokesperson to English-language media outlets during this time.

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He took to this role with unusual vigor, rightly seeing it as a chance to quickly ascend the Likud Party ladder. According to one contemporary profile, Netanyahu “did 50 radio and TV interviews in the first three days of the Gulf War.” Bibi proved to be a tremendous asset as he excelled in front of the cameras just as cable news was taking off in the United States. A 1991 Associated Press article appropriately called him the “TV-Image Maker for Israel.”

While carving out a high public profile for himself, Bibi’s role as spokesperson sometimes got him in trouble. His thirst for the spotlight, for instance, alienated his boss, Foreign Minister David Levy.

It was Bibi’s overzealous rhetoric that alienated many in the George H.W. Bush administration. This was the start of a trend that has continued to this day. In fact, one former senior U.S. official told me that it was like “some of pathology…. Just look at the language used by Netanyahu” in dealing with the Obama administration. Aaron David Miller, the vice president of the Wilson Center who has advised six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli issues, similarly observes, “Rabin would have never used Holocaust imagery to describe the Iranian nuclear threat. He never would have.”

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Bibi began conjuring up Holocaust imagery long before the Iranian nuclear threat emerged, however. Indeed, when the Bush administration called on the Shamir government to halt all Jewish settlements on Arab land, Netanyahu told an Israeli news outlet that, “the meaning of the American demand is to return Israel to the borders of Auschwitz.”

Netanyahu’s bombast during this period would also land him in Secretary of State James Baker’s doghouse. Specifically, in 1992 the State Department announced that the Palestine Liberation Organization had honored its pledge to renounce terrorism. Netanyahu, who actively opposed Washington’s dealings with the PLO, responded by telling reporters, “It is astonishing that a superpower like the United States… is building its policy on a foundation of distortion and lies.”

Baker was so outraged by the accusation that he took the unusual step of banning Netanyahu from the State Department. “His language was unacceptable for a senior diplomat from a friendly country,” Baker later wrote in his memoirs. “I promptly banned him from the State Department,” (He eventually lifted the ban after speaking with Netanyahu, a U.S. diplomat who worked under Baker during this time told TNI, but said that Baker made it a point to never meet with Netanyahu again inside Foggy Bottom).

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