Netanyahu: The Israeli Leader No President Can Stomach

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

Bibi’s meetings did not go unnoticed in the White House either. Ross, the special envoy to the Middle East, would later write, “The message was clear: Don’t press Bibi too hard or he could make life difficult politically for the president.” Clinton got the message loud and clear but, in typical fashion, decided to shy away from the confrontation. Although he did mention Falwell to Bibi during their White House meeting, Clinton quickly offered “Let's forget about it. We've got a lot of work to do." A White House advisor called Clinton’s reaction “stunning.” Still, the entire U.S. administration reacted with “barely suppressed delight” to Netanyahu’s electoral defeat the following year. Notably, two former Clinton campaign alumni, the pollster Stanley B. Greenberg and strategist James Carville, helped run his opponent’s campaign.

It is against this backdrop that Netanyahu’s rift with the Obama administration has unfolded. Despite many calling the current standoff unprecedented, Bibi’s actions have been eerily similar to his dealings with both the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations.

What is different about the current rift, according to many of the people TNI spoke with, is how public it has been. This was certainly the assessment of Daniel Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who served as Netanyahu’s deputy foreign minister from 2009-2013. In a phone interview last week, Ayalon pointed out— as did every person TNI spoke with—that all Israeli premiers have clashed with their American counterparts to some degree or another. Still, Ayalon, who now heads The Truth About Israel, a non-profit, called the current situation “unprecedented” because in the past, these “were not spilling over into the press” or in public statements like the ones Susan Rice and other administration officials have made in recent days.

This isn’t entirely true, however. In fact, Bibi’s clashes with prior U.S. administrations were hardly secrets in large part thanks to Netanyahu himself. After all, Bibi has never been one for self-censorship (When asked for his reaction to 9/11 hours after it occurred, Bibi said, “It’s very good [for U.S.-Israeli Relations]…. Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.”)

Still Ayalon— who was adamant that he doesn’t blame either side for the current rift— has a point when he notes that there is “a total lack of mutual trust and mutual confidence” between Bibi and Obama that did not exist with Clinton.

Indeed, one of the major differences in Bibi’s relations with both presidents appears to be that President Obama hasn’t gone to extensive lengths to avoid confrontations with Bibi in the way that Clinton did. Thus, whereas Clinton shrugged off Bibi brazen attempts to mobilize Republicans against him, President Obama has proved more willing to call Netanyahu out for similar provocations. This has resulted in the public back and forth that has often taken place during the Obama administration.

That still leaves open the question of why Netanyahu engages in such provocations in the first place. According to Zalman Shoval, a highly respected Likud politician who has served as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the U.S., Bibi’s actions are largely by the Iran nuclear issue. “I don’t think this is basically about politics from Netanyahu’s side. I think it’s about history,” Shoval told TNI by phone. Bibi believes that the “future of Jewish people is at stake” with the Iran nuclear issue, and that saving them “rests on his shoulder.” Because of the gravity of the situation, Bibi is willing to take any action to prevent an Iranian bomb, “no matter the price,” Shoval said.

This is consistent with what Netanyahu himself has said. “I am leaving for Washington on a fateful, even historic, mission,” Bibi said before departing on his trip on Sunday. “I feel that I am the emissary of all Israelis…. of the entire Jewish people.”

Miller similarly believes that both the nuclear Iran and Palestinian peace issues are reaching “an endgame,” and because of this the “issues on the table now are far more fundamental than they were between Israeli and U.S. leaders in the past.” This is causing tremendous strain in the bilateral relationship, Miller says.