n early 1991, as Saddam Hussein’s scud missiles fell near Israeli population centers, Israelis donned gas masks and retreated to bomb shelters. The air-warning siren sounded one evening while CNN’s Linda Scherzer was ready to broadcast. The crew, Scherzer included, put on their masks. So did the Israeli official Scherzer was about to interview. Viewers might have expected him to be unintelligible: a thick accent, broken English, the usual. But this official was decidedly unusual, speaking in flawless, idiomatic, virtually accentless English delivered with poise. It should have been tedious television, but instead it was utterly compelling, thanks to the Israeli in the studio—Benjamin Netanyahu.
The CNN interview was vintage Bibi: his American-ness, his flair for the dramatic, his utility as a spokesman for Israeli hopes and fears, his ability with Western audiences. But these characteristics explain something else about him: They are also largely responsible for Netanyahu’s successful career in Israeli politics. He isn’t American-born, but he is, in many ways, American-made—the most American politician in the world outside the United States. And yet, despite this fact, he has had a rocky relationship with American presidents, very much including Bill Clinton. With Clinton’s wife the favorite to win November’s election and become the next U.S. president at a moment of great peril and great promise for Israel, Netanyahu’s four-decade history of political conflict with American administrations is worth study.
enjamin Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to have been born in the State of Israel. When he was eight years old, his academic father was offered a teaching job in New York and the family moved to Manhattan. Two years later, the family returned to Jerusalem. Three years after that, the Netanyahus returned to the States just outside Philadelphia, where Bibi went to high school.
Benjamin returned to Israel for his military service, and was recruited to join the same elite reconnaissance unit in which his brother Yonatan served. When he was released, Bibi moved to Boston with his first wife, Micki, and attended MIT. He fought with the IDF in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, returned to MIT to finish his studies, joining the Boston Consulting Group after college, and then took a position with the Israeli furniture company Rim in 1978.
In 1976, his brother Yonatan was killed during the raid on Entebbe Airport in which their unit, Sayeret Matkal, rescued 103 hostages. Yoni’s heroism electrified the nation, and even as Benjamin was learning the furniture business, he created an institute in his brother’s honor to study the threat of terrorism. The Jonathan Institute was inaugurated with an ambitious conference in 1979 featuring political dignitaries and politicians from around the world. The conference was a triumph and launched Benjamin’s political career.
In 1982, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., began looking for a replacement for the outgoing political attaché, and Netanyahu got the job. The timing was propitious, because Israel would go to war in southern Lebanon that year and desperately needed any and all eloquent defenders of the country’s actions to speak to the foreign press.
Netanyahu studied hard. Every weekend, he and his second wife, Fleur, rented several TV cameras and a spotlight, and Fleur would practice grilling Bibi over the day’s news. They would run the tapes back like boxers or football coaches and then do another interview. “Compared to other diplomats, Bibi Netanyahu was like a breath of fresh air,” write Netanyahu biographers Ben Caspit and Ilan Kfir. “He spoke to the Americans in their own language, using expressions from the world of sports and the college campus. And he was always smiling.”
Netanyahu cultivated friendships with media executives and star anchors. He refined and beefed up the Israeli Embassy’s PR shop. And as the Reagan administration’s pressure on Prime Minister Menachem Begin increased, so did Bibi’s aggressive defense of Israel’s actions. One example: After one Israeli offensive, a picture began circulating in the media of a young injured Lebanese girl. Netanyahu could tell the picture was a forgery and investigated. He found the girl: Her injury had happened years earlier, during the Lebanese civil war. Netanyahu was spotting libels and had the standing and connections to debunk them, which took some pressure off Begin.
Netanyahu’s efforts, however, were not without missteps of a kind he would repeat. Moshe Arens, the ambassador, wanted Bibi on TV and in the press whenever possible. But Netanyahu got a bit too comfortable criticizing the Reagan administration for Arens’s taste, and he worried his superiors by going around Reagan to build support for Israel’s position among members of Congress—a practice that would come under scrutiny again when Bibi fought against the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran 33 years later.
As the Reagan administration’s pressure on Begin increased, so did Bibi’s aggressive defense of Israel. Netanyahu’s efforts, however, were not without missteps.
The press oversimplified and misreported what was agreed to. Shultz again called Netanyahu to clear the air. Eventually the complex hostage crisis was resolved, but not before it gave another boost to Netanyahu’s dealings with America: the U.S. security establishment’s recognition that defeating terrorism would require a global effort that also targeted and pressured the terrorists’ state sponsors.
In truth, the seeds of anti-terrorism were planted earlier and cultivated by Netanyahu. In 1983, Shultz revealed to Netanyahu that he and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were at odds over the value of a global war on terror; Shultz was in favor. Terrorism experts are a dime a dozen today, but in 1983 Netanyahu was one of the few, owing to his work with the Jonathan Institute. Netanyahu told Shultz terrorism could be defeated by resisting terrorists’ demands and by being ready to, as Caspit and Kfir put it, “fight countries which support and protect terrorism.”
Netanyahu organized a second conference, at which Shultz was one of the featured speakers. Two years later, during the negotiations over TWA 847, Shultz began winning his internal battle with Weinberger and was convincing Ronald Reagan that tougher action against terrorism was required. The National Security Council produced a timeline of steps to take against the terrorists. Among those steps was “declaring war on terrorism,” and another was, in Shultz’s words, expanding that fight to “any nation that used its state apparatus to support terrorism”—as Netanyahu had recommended to Shultz.
Netanyahu’s turn toward domestic politics happened prior to the 1988 Knesset elections, when he—by then a star of the right—joined the Likud slate. Arens became foreign minister and made Netanyahu a deputy, putting the band back together, this time to tackle the emerging Palestinian peace track. And there he was, back on American television screens.
“Why, though, is having this state of almost civil war any better than having a Palestinian entity on your border, where they’re involved with organizing their own community?” Lesley Stahl asked Netanyahu in 1988 on Face the Nation.
“Lesley,” he replied, “we’ve experienced what happened when these territories were in Arab hands, and in fact when the PLO was there in these very territories before the 1967 war. What they used it for is to launch a war of extermination against Israel.” Bibi closed his comments with a typical American flourish: “If you want to move toward peace, you’re going to wait a long time until this PLO leopard changes its spots.”
The U.S.-Israel relationship took a turn for the better under Reagan so significant that it counts as a realignment. That relationship took more than one or two steps back during the one term of Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.
IN 1989, the Bush White House was trying to organize multiparty peace talks, but no one could seem to agree on who could or should represent the Palestinians at the table. When it finally looked as if the question had been satisfactorily answered, Secretary of State James Baker testified to the Senate that he supported conditioning U.S. loan guarantees to Israel on the latter’s willingness to freeze settlements. Two days later, President Bush criticized building Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. Just like that, the process was on ice.
Netanyahu publicly accused the Bush administration of dishonesty, and Baker banned him from his presence for the rest of the term. He seemed proud of his decision, too: “Even after [Netanyahu] wrote me claiming to have been misunderstood, I wouldn’t see him for the rest of my tenure, although I rescinded the ban against his seeing others in the building,” Baker writes in his memoirs. What Baker glosses over is how willing the White House was to facilitate the breakup of the governing coalition led by Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir and let the government fall in hopes of a more compliant Labor-led coalition.
The Bush administration was enraged by Shamir’s intractability as it began a peace process that was to be inaugurated with a conference in Madrid in 1991. Throughout the Madrid process, Netanyahu served as deputy foreign minister and was a point man at press conferences about the process. He was a fixture on American television, and his defense of his government’s refusal to bow to international demands infuriated Bush and Baker still more.
n the wake of the Madrid process’s failure, the complex coalition led by the Likud government fell, which opened the space for Netanyahu to elbow his way to party leadership—just as Bill Clinton defeated Bush in the 1992 presidential election.
The retrospective irony of the 1992 election was that Netanyahu surely preferred Clinton to Bush. Indeed, Clinton later told historian Taylor Branch that he was certain Netanyahu wanted him to win. But Netanyahu’s preferences were of no moment. Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party won the new elections, and the peace process resumed. Bibi was relegated to the sidelines in the opposition. Clinton and Rabin ramped up the peace process, and the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993 on the White House lawn by Rabin and PLO chair Yasir Arafat—and when an assassin’s bullet killed Rabin in November 1995, Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, called early elections against Netanyahu’s Likud. And because Rabin had been murdered by a right-wing extremist, the Israeli and American left treated Netanyahu’s party as an accomplice.
The conventional wisdom about Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister is that he was uncooperative in advancing peace. This is impossible to square with the reality.
It was a gamble the president lost when Netanyahu squeaked out a narrow victory. It is important to note that Bibi did not run on a platform or promise of undoing Oslo, but he expressed profound skepticism about Yasir Arafat’s true intentions. The conventional wisdom about Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 is that he was obstinate and uncooperative in advancing peace. This is impossible to square with the reality.
Netanyahu is no right-wing ideologue, and both Clinton and Dennis Ross, who took the lead on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, understood this. Clinton’s dislike of Netanyahu once in office largely stemmed from Bibi’s propensity to lecture. After their first meeting, Clinton said, “He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.”
But in terms of policy, Netanyahu is a pragmatist, which Clinton recognized. Bibi (in Branch’s paraphrasing) “wanted badly to maneuver against ‘crazies’ within his own coalition,” Clinton told Branch. “Netanyahu complained constantly that General Ariel Sharon forced his way into the cabinet, for instance, and had made nothing but trouble since, dreaming of an Israeli settlement on every corner in the West Bank.”
It is also true that Netanyahu repeatedly flattened himself into the caricature drawn of him. In return for restarting negotiations, Bibi wanted to throw a bone to his restive right flank. He did so by expanding Jewish building in Jerusalem and by opening the Hasmonean tunnel, an underground passageway that made it possible to enter the Kotel tunnel (underneath the Western Wall), walk through the Hasmonean tunnel, and exit in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The Palestinians threw a fit, Clinton called a summit, and the pressure was back on Bibi to produce some positive step.
To do so, the parties turned to Hebron, an ancient Jewish holy city and the site of the Cave of the Patriarchs. It was also the major city in the West Bank from which the IDF had not yet redeployed to make way for Palestinian stewardship. At first, Netanyahu was almost too eager to make progress with the Palestinians. One of his weaknesses was showing through: He liked to alternate between placating his right wing and mollifying the peace camp. Thus he telegraphed his moves and thereby became easier for both sides to manipulate. When Arafat sensed Netanyahu needed to have something to show on the peace front, he would hold back.
One way Ross found to make progress was to have dual-track talks: a high-level, public channel and a back channel. When the back channel made enough progress, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership would take the baton. More than once Ross had to stop Netanyahu from trying to use his own cabinet’s pressure as a means of getting Arafat to move the ball forward; Ross understood Arafat had no intention of aiding Netanyahu domestically. The Palestinian sought only to take advantage of his rival’s perceived political weakness.
Ross and Netanyahu often disagreed on policy, but Netanyahu trusted Ross. He didn’t necessarily need like-minded counterparts in Washington, but he did need interlocutors who would be straight with him and hold up their end of any bargain. Americans have persistently misunderstood this because, unlike Ross, they do not try to understand the complexities of Israeli politics and instead insist on seeing it in the frame of our own. Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state during Clinton’s second term, is a perfect example. Here is Albright’s description of Netanyahu upon taking office as secretary of state: “Pugnacious, partisan, and very smooth, he reminded me of Newt Gingrich.” Preposterously, she was determined to see him as a Republican instead of as the head of the party of a rambunctious democratic ally.
One of the most important things to understand about Bibi is that he fears the right wing precisely because he isn’t really one of them. In spirit and interest, he is far closer to the Labor elite whose political stance he admittedly reviles. And though he has been one of the two dominant figures on the Israeli right for the past quarter-century, he actually came to power twice by outmaneuvering the Likud Party “princes” (as they were called), who have remained thorns in his side forever. He doesn’t care nearly as much about satisfying the right wing as he does about silencing them. That is a big difference.
And it is a difference too many American officials have never grasped. When the Hebron negotiations hit a rough patch—Palestinian terrorism followed by Israeli construction—Albright apparently raised the astounding possibility of announcing publicly that the U.S. “could not work with” Netanyahu, according to Ross. Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Ross said, “feared that Bibi was deliberately trying to destroy the Oslo process.”
Instead of such histrionics, it would have been more useful for these foreign-policy experts to understand that when external events—terrorism on the one side, coalition maneuvering on the other—intrude, it’s a sign that those external forces should be dealt with. Indeed, this is what diplomats are supposed to understand about the countries they deal with; it’s why diplomats exist in the first place.
The United States should have known then and should know now that an Israeli prime minister must respond to acts of terrorism and cannot reward them with concessions; it is the sine qua non of leadership in Israel. And American officials should know that only by bringing pressure to bear on the Palestinians to halt terrorism and the incitement that drives the violence, can Israeli leaders have the freedom to move on the peace track.
Despite all this, Netanyahu and Arafat eventually came to agreements on Hebron in 1997 and 1998. And yet, when Netanyahu’s government started to fall apart in 1999, Team Clinton was gleeful. Clinton was angered when Netanyahu did not agree to new concessions at the Wye Plantation negotiations in 1998; Bibi told Clinton he needed a face-saving concession in the form of the release of the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and Clinton could not assent.
New elections were called and Clinton once again put his thumb on the scales against Netanyahu. The administration didn’t even try to hide it, as this quote that one White House official gave to the New York Times revealed: “Officially, our position is that Israel is a sovereign country, we don’t meddle in its internal affairs, blah, blah, blah.” Three of Clinton’s top election strategists—Stanley Greenberg, James Carville, and Bob Shrum—went over to help Labor’s Ehud Barak win.
He did. But the intifada that erupted at the inevitable end of the Oslo process delivered the government back into Likud’s hands within two years. But not into Netanyahu’s. Chastened by his defeat, he took a brief pause from electoral politics and saw Ariel Sharon put down the intifada. He roared back into public life in opposition to Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and Sharon was forced to abandon Likud to form a new Kadima Party rather than be voted out of leadership. Netanyahu then took his party back.
our years later, just as Barack Obama was getting settled into the White House in 2009, Likud lost national elections to Kadima. But Netanyahu outmaneuvered Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to form a governing coalition, and he was prime minister once again. To say this isn’t what Obama wanted would be the understatement of the new millennium. Since 2009, the Obama-Bibi relationship has been studied and discussed and analyzed to the point of exhaustion. Now the page is turning on Obama’s time, but not on his Israeli counterpart’s. What lessons can be drawn from the painful history of the most American of Israeli prime ministers and the hostility shown him by the American administrations he has dealt with as a leader?
The lesson for Netanyahu is to disabuse himself of the fantasy he can ever be enough of an expert on American politics to outwit the president on his or her home court. No Israeli—no foreign leader, for that matter—knows America the way Bibi does. But by definition, any American president has a better feel for the U.S. electorate and a superior understanding of the minutiae of political operation than virtually anyone else save his living predecessors.
Netanyahu’s repeated attempts to find leverage against Obama were understandable but in retrospect doomed to failure, as we saw in his effort to run rings around Obama on the Iran deal—specifically by addressing a joint session of Congress that took on Obama on his home turf and was aimed at turning members of Obama’s own party against him. That Netanyahu was right on the merits doesn’t mean he was right on the optics, and the whole business demonstrated not a deep understanding of American politics but an odd naiveté about the way things work here. Bibi is a parliamentary politician and he imagined he could use America’s parliament against Obama. But America doesn’t have a parliament.
The lesson for Obama’s successor is twofold. First make sure there is someone—anyone—high up in the administration who can serve as what might be called the “trust valve.” During Begin’s premiership, Netanyahu saw the acrimony that resulted from the various challenges to the relationship, especially the war in Lebanon. But what he also probably noticed was that while Reagan’s cabinet, especially in his first term, was ill-disposed toward Begin, Reagan himself was not.
Each time a crisis seemed to be developing, Begin found that Reagan listened to his side of the story and, at times, even instinctively trusted the Israeli over his own advisers. Reagan’s reservoir of sympathy for Israel was key to ensuring the relationship didn’t crash and burn after the war in Lebanon.
During Bill Clinton’s administration, the trust valve was Dennis Ross, with whom Netanyahu speaks freely. During the Obama administration, there was no such valve. Obama had no personal relationship with Netanyahu, and neither did his advisors. His Mideast envoy was Martin Indyk, who openly loathes Netanyahu. And Obama’s national-security aides constantly badmouthed the Israeli leader. One called him “a chickens–t” to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg; National Security Adviser Susan Rice talked to Anti-Defamation League leader Abe Foxman about Netanyahu’s supposed racism. Under Obama, there was nobody to talk to. There must be somebody to talk to.
The other major lesson is not to play into Netanyahu’s fears about foreign interference. Obama meddled throughout Bibi’s first term in his latest premiership, trying to destabilize the governing coalition and elevate Tzipi Livni in his place. Then he tried to ensure Netanyahu didn’t get a second consecutive term.
Obama unnecessarily put Netanyahu in impossible situations with his own coalition, for example by demanding an unprecedented settlement freeze that forbade building for “natural growth” and in Jerusalem. And Obama refused to put pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to stop the officially sanctioned incitement that led to terror sprees and disempowered both leaders by making them subservient to events.
Trying to weaken the Israeli prime minister when he obviously needs broad public support to make sacrifices and concessions for peace is self-destructive. Doing so to Netanyahu, who has been the target of such rash behavior literally every time he has been elected prime minister and who is therefore both sensitive to it and adept at countering it, is a recipe for disaster.
If Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition hangs on and Hillary Clinton retains her lead in the polls and beats Donald Trump, it will be a testament to their survival instincts. They have been central players in the fates of their respective countries for decades. Let’s hope they’ve learned something.