Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren had lunch with reporters today in Washington. What was the most newsworthy bit? According to Buzzfeed’s write-up, it’s that Oren made the unambiguously true statement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not interfere in the recent American presidential election. “Prime Minister Netanyahu went to extraordinary lengths not to be dragged into the U.S. presidential elections,” Rosie Gray quotes Oren as saying.
That this is considered news is a good demonstration of how hysterical some reporters (not Gray, I should be clear) became during the election when Netanyahu didn’t spend enough time, in their minds, praising President Obama. But Oren’s words were actually chosen carefully here, it seems. Of course Netanyahu didn’t interfere in the election, and a great many members of the press embarrassed themselves by accusing him repeatedly and falsely of doing so. But Oren is right: it’s not just that Netanyahu didn’t interfere. It’s that he had to work especially hard not to get dragged into the election. And those dragging Netanyahu into the election were none other than the media personalities accusing Netanyahu of interfering.
The best example of this came during a September broadcast of “Meet the Press” when host David Gregory interviewed Netanyahu, and proceeded to first criticize Netanyahu for getting involved in the election and then try to goad him into getting involved in the election–on Obama’s behalf. Gregory asked Netanyahu why he was criticizing Obama when Netanyahu talked about the need to establish red lines on Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu responded that he didn’t intend it as a criticism of Obama but actually that other (unnamed) world leaders had been accusing Netanyahu of being reckless, and he wanted to establish clearly that Israel has a right to defend itself. Gregory completely ignored the answer and proceeded as if he wasn’t even listening when Netanyahu spoke:
GREGORY: Your criticism, your calling on President Obama to set this red line, comes in the middle of a heated presidential campaign. You understand the American political system very well. You’re very sophisticated in that regard. In your view, would Governor Mitt Romney as President Romney make Israel safer? Would he take a harder line against Iran than President Obama in your judgment?
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: God, I’m– I’m not going to be drawn into the American election. And– and what’s guiding my statements are– is not the American political calendar but the Iranian nuclear calendar. They’re just– you know, if they stop spinning the centrifuges for– and took timeout for the American elections, I wouldn’t have to talk. And I wouldn’t have to raise this issue. But as the prime minister of Israel, knowing that this country committed to our destruction is getting closer to the goal of having weapons of mass destruction then I speak out. And it’s got– it’s really not a partisan political issue. And I think it’s important for anyone who is the president of the United States to be in that position of preventing Iran from having this nuclear weapons– nuclear weapons capability. And I’m talking to the president. I just talked to him the other day. We are in close consultations. We’re trying to prevent that. It’s really not a partisan issue. It’s a policy issue not a political issue.
GREGORY: Well, but it may not be a partisan issue. You have known Mitt Romney a long time. The reality is– tell me if you disagree that Governor Romney just in an interview this week said that his position is very much the same as President Obama. They are both committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Not just as an impartial observer, as the prime minister of Israel, do you agree with that that both the president and his challenger have the same view with regard to preventing Iran from going nuclear?
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: I have no doubt that they are equally committed to preventing that. It’s a– it’s a vital American interest. It’s a– it’s an existential interest on my case so, this isn’t the issue. We are united on this across the board.
Netanyahu might have thought he was out of the woods, but after one more question Gregory returned the pressing matter of attempting to hector Netanyahu into praising Obama:
GREGORY: Prime Minister, one more question on the American election. You have been accused this week by pundits in this country of trying to interfere in this presidential election, siding with Governor Mitt Romney. Now, Governor Romney for a year, and he said it in his convention speech, has said, quote, “President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus.” Do you agree or disagree with Governor Romney’s charge? It’s a serious charge.
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, you’re– you’re trying to get me into the– into the American election and I’m not going to do that. The relationship between Israel and the United States is a bond of– it’s just a very powerful bond. It was, it is, and will be and will continue to be. And I– I can tell you there’s no one– there’s no leader in the world who’s more appreciative than me of the strength of this alliance. It’s very strong. There’s no one in Israel who appreciates more than me the importance of American support for Israel. It’s not a partisan issue. In fact, we cherish the bipartisan support of Democrats and Republicans alike. This is critical for us.
GREGORY: But prime minister, with respect, if I may just interrupt you…
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: And– and I think it’s critical that we take…
Gregory, now agitated, interrupts again:
GREGORY: I think this is a very important point because you say you don’t want to interfere in the election. There are tens of millions of Americans who are watching that speech, who hear that rhetoric, who hear that charge, who may not understand the complexities of this issue. You are the leader of the Jewish people. You say this is not a partisan issue. You get billions of dollars from direct foreign investment from this country, hundreds of millions of dollars from Americans, Jews and Christians alike from this country. It seems to me for you to remain silent on whether this administration has thrown Israel under the bus is tantamount to agreeing with the sentiment. So where do you come down on that specific charge against President Obama?
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Now, there you go again, David, you’re trying to draw me into something that– that is simply not– not the case and it’s not my position. My position is that we– we have strong cooperation. We’ll continue to cooperate. We’re the best of allies. And Israel is the one reliable ally of the United States in the Middle East…
Not good enough, says Gregory:
GREGORY: So President Obama has not thrown Israel under the bus?
PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: …if that wasn’t understood until yesterday. So it’s– it’s– there’s– there’s no bus, and we’re not going to get into that discussion, except to say one thing. We have a strong alliance and we’re going to continue to have a strong alliance. I think the important question is where does the– the only bus that is really important is the Iranian nuclear bus. That’s the one that we have to– to derail. And that’s my interest. That’s my– my only interest.
With that, Gregory was satisfied (or almost out of time). This was only the most visible case of what Oren was talking about–though of course he was too diplomatic to get into details. Netanyahu had to work to stay out of this election, and it’s because the American media so desperately wanted his interference.