Netanyahu: The Israeli Leader No President Can Stomach

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

It was with this in mind that Clinton invited Netanyahu to Washington at the beginning of 1998. Three days before the Israeli leader arrived, however, the Monica Lewinsky scandal first surfaced in a story published on the Drudge Report. While it’s unclear if Netanyahu intentionally seized upon the emerging scandal, as some have claimed, there is little doubt that he came to Washington intent on using America’s domestic politics to force Clinton to relent on the West Bank withdrawal.

Ever the “TV-image maker,” Netanyahu arrived in Washington with a group of Israelis who had lost family members to terrorism in tow. In an event that “was added to Mr. Netanyahu's schedule at the last minute,” Bibi went directly from the airport to an evangelical Christian conference at the Mayflower Hotel that was organized by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Even before the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton considered Falwell an “outright enemy,” according to the New York Times. Around the time he met with Bibi, Falwell was widely distributing and actively promoting the conspiratorial “Clinton Chronicles” video, which accused the president of everything from “treason to drug-running.” At the conference, Netanyahu asked Falwell and his supporters to use their influence in Congress to pressure the White House on the West Bank withdrawals.

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."