Netanyahu: The Israeli Leader No President Can Stomach

Netanyahu: The Israeli Leader No President Can Stomach

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

Falwell would later claim that the entire conference had been dreamt up by Netanyahu. “I put together 1,000 people or so to meet with Bibi and he spoke to us that night,” the religious leader told Vanity Fair in 2005. “It was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Mr. Clinton.” Falwell also linked the move to the Lewinsky scandal. “It was during the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” he said of the conference. “Clinton had to save himself, so he terminated the demands [to relinquish West Bank territory] that would have been forthcoming during that meeting.”

Netanyahu courted other Clinton adversaries during the same trip, including the televangelist Pat Robertson, who he granted an interview. Additionally, in an apparent break of protocol not completely unlike his address to Congress this week, during the 1998 trip Netanyahu visited Capitol Hill before meeting with Clinton at the White House. This despite the fact that Clinton had invited Bibi to Washington, and that Congress wasn’t even in session. Nonetheless, Bibi managed to set up meetings with a number of Republican lawmakers, including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

This wasn’t the first time Netanyahu had tried to play Congress against the executive branch. During his stint as deputy foreign minister, Netanyahu reportedly lobbied Congress to kill the Bush administration's efforts to open up a direct dialogue with the PLO. He was also accused of lobbying Congress against Israel’s own government when he was opposition leader during the Rabin government. During this time, a few Likud officials Netanyahu was close with took up residence in Washington to lobby conservative Republican lawmakers against the Oslo peace process, which the Rabin government was pushing. Netanyahu denied colluding with the “Likud lobbyists,” as they were called in the Israeli press, but suspicions lingered among the Israeli elite.

In any event, Netanyahu’s decision to cozy up to Clinton’s Republican critics during the January 1998 trip mostly backfired. To begin with, the move angered many influential Jewish leaders in the United States. For instance, Abraham Foxman, the staunchly pro-Israel director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized Netanyahu for “poking a finger in the administration's eye.” Another “20-year veteran” of the pro-Israel lobby was blunter, calling Bibi’s meetings with Falwell and Gingrich “a virtual declaration of war."

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.

But Bibi’s troubles with U.S. presidents existed long before the Iran nuclear issue. It is thus more plausible that, as Miller told me, the personalities of both leaders are combining with these dynamics to create a “perfect storm.” With regards to Obama, Miller cites youth as a major factor. He points out that the president was only six years old during Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, and this has given him a different perspective on Israel than his older predecessors, who remember the darkest days in the Jewish state’s short history.

With regards to Netanyahu, Miller repeatedly emphasized that he is much more “suspicious and wary” of the United States than other Israeli leaders. While all Israeli prime ministers must sleep with one eye open, Miller said, Netanyahu sleeps with both eyes open— one watching Israel’s enemies and the other on the United States.

Miller also said that, paradoxically, given his American upbringing and superior language skills, Netanyahu isn’t as “comfortable and confident” in dealing with American leaders as his predecessors were. Miller believes it is this lack of confidence that is behind much of Netanyahu’s “brashness.”

“Rabin would never behave like Netanyahu” towards the United States, Miller said, because “Rabin was more comfortable with and less suspicious of” America than Bibi. But rather a display of arrogance, as it often appears, “Netanyahu’s boldness reflects an absence of confidence.”

If recent history is anything to go by, Congress should be able to help Bibi with that on Tuesday.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Official White House photo by Pete Souza