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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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.

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."

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