Netanyahu: The Israeli Leader No President Can Stomach

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

Baker wasn’t the only Bush administration official who wanted Bibi banned from government premises. Robert Gates, who served in the administration as deputy national security advisor and later as CIA Director, advocated barring Netanyahu from the White House. Writing years later in his own memoirs, Gates recounted that after he first met Netanyahu in 1991, “I was offended by his glibness and his criticisms of U.S. policy—not to mention his arrogance and outlandish ambition—and I told national security adviser Brent Scowcroft that Bibi ought not be allowed back on White House grounds.”

Gates and Bibi would go on to work together extensively over the following decades. Yet Gates was never able to shake his first impression of Bibi. In fact, in one of his last National Security Council meetings as Obama’s secretary of defense, Gates delivered a diatribe against Bibi, telling President Obama that he is an “ungrateful” ally, among other criticisms.

Netanyahu didn’t get along much better with the Bill Clinton administration during his first term as prime minister. Ties were especially strained early on because Netanyahu rightly believed that Clinton had favored his political opponent, Shimon Peres, in the recent Israeli election, while the administration feared that Bibi would torpedo the Oslo peace process (hence why Clinton favored Peres).

Netanyahu did nothing to dispel Clinton’s concerns during his first meeting with the president as prime minister in July 1996. Time magazine reported at the time that: “In explaining his positions to Clinton— no to Palestinian statehood, no to returning the Golan Heights to Syria, no to any notion of sharing sovereignty over Jerusalem with the Arabs— the Prime Minister offered no concessions. The disappointment among Clinton's aides was palpable.”

That vastly understated the case. Aaron David Miller, who was the State Department’s Deputy Special Middle East Coordinator at the time, later revealed that Clinton was so angry with Netanyahu that he fumed to his aides after the meeting, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who's the fucking superpower here?”

The relationship between the two leaders would improve somewhat in the coming years, in no small part because, as Dennis Ross—Clinton’s Special Envoy to the Middle East— put it, Clinton was not "keen to have a confrontation with Bibi, or with anybody. That's who he is.” Clinton and Bibi would even make some progress in negotiations with the Palestinians with the signing of the Wye River Memorandum in 1998 (although this soon unraveled when both sides failed to follow through).

Still, Netanyahu never got along particularly well with many of Clinton’s foreign policy aides, most notably Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Even one former Israeli diplomat who told TNI that “Netanyahu had basically a good relationship with Clinton” admitted that “he did not have a good relationship with Albright.”

Moreover, Clinton’s extensive efforts to avoid any confrontation with Bibi did not always work. While policy disagreements were partly to blame, Netanyahu at times seemed to welcome a public confrontation with the U.S. president. This was certainly the case when Bibi came to Washington in January 1998 in a trip that bears many similarities to the one he is currently on.

Much like today, that trip took place at a time when Israeli-American ties were increasingly strained. The point of contention was Netanyahu’s attempts to backtrack on previous Israeli commitments to withdraw from parts of the West Bank.

Implementation has long been a problem for Netanyahu, according to U.S. officials who have dealt with him. One former U.S. diplomat told me that Bibi is “slippery” and said it is "hard to nail him down to a commitment… This is one of the reasons Obama has such poor relations with him.” This was also something that dogged Bibi’s relationship with the Clinton administration. A “consistent pattern” of Netanyahu’s first tenure as prime minister, Dennis Ross explained, was that “whenever he sought to reach out to the Palestinians, he would seek to offset his action with steps that would appease his right-wing constituency. Yet it was precisely those steps that would inflame Palestinian opinion,” and scuttle the entire negotiations.