Essay: Bibi’s seven presidents
Sep 28, 2023 | Tevi Troy
Netanyahu’s history of managing US-Israel relations
Binyamin Netanyahu was elected the prime minister of Israel for a sixth time in November 2022 – and by the time the Jewish New Year rolled around in September 2023, he had yet to meet with Joe Biden, notwithstanding the US President’s repeated invocation of their many decades of friendship during his own 2020 campaign [Ed Note: Biden and Netanyahu subsequently held a meeting in New York on Sept. 20]. This presidential snub prompted breathless speculation from journalists, diplomats, Israel supporters, and foes of the ideological makeup of the new Netanyahu-led Government.
It would have been surprising only if Biden hadn’t kept Bibi at an arm’s distance. His Administration was predisposed to look sceptically at the new Netanyahu Government. Even a previous Bibi premiership had earned Bibi a talking-to from Biden. According to Netanyahu’s memoir, My Story, Biden had warned him in 2021 that “this is not Scoop Jackson’s Democratic Party” – by which the President seems to have meant that the party Biden now leads is far less friendly to Israel than it was back in the 1970s when the pro-Israel Jackson was its leading foreign-policy light.
Of course, Netanyahu needed no such education from Biden. He has been studying, befriending, and clashing with American presidents over a political career that began in the early 1980s. He has manoeuvred in a challenging political environment in Washington across five decades. His method is not just to build personal relationships but to use the force of argument to make the case for his point of view. As he describes the formula in his memoir: “Influence governments through public opinion, influence public opinion by appealing to justice, influence leaders by appealing to interests.” He learned this from his father, Benzion Netanyahu, who in turn learned it from the Zionist intellectual Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky believed that making one’s case forcefully and persistently in a democratic society is the best way to bring about preferred policy outcomes. Bibi Netanyahu turned the idea into a reality.
After his brother Yonatan was killed in Israel’s legendary rescue of its hostages from hijackers in Entebbe in 1976, Bibi created the Yonatan Institute to alert the world to the challenges of terrorism. He organised two conferences on the problem of international terrorism, both attended by thinkers and world leaders. To the first, in Jerusalem in 1979, he invited former CIA head and presidential hopeful George H.W. Bush. Netanyahu’s father had suggested he invite Ronald Reagan as well, but Netanyahu refused, unwisely dismissing Reagan as “an actor”. Benzion Netanyahu pushed back, saying, “He’s a man of conviction. Invite him.” The son did not listen and later regretted it.
By the time of the next conference, in Washington in 1984, Netanyahu had absorbed the lesson. He was by this point working as a diplomat in the Israeli Embassy in Washington but helped organise matters behind the scenes. He invited multiple officials from Reagan’s Administration – among them Secretary of State George Shultz and Counsellor Edwin Meese. Netanyahu had missed his opportunity in 1979 to develop a personal relationship with Reagan, but he kept at it and worked to see that his ideas about the need to hold state sponsors of terror accountable for their actions influenced the thinking and actions of Reagan and key members of his Administration.
During the George H.W. Bush Administration, Netanyahu was a rising Israeli political star, but he came crosswise of a White House that was less friendly to his country’s interests. His persistence was viewed as obnoxious, and then-White House aide Robert Gates actually asked his boss, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, to ban Netanyahu from the White House grounds. Netanyahu did not do much better at the State Department. James Baker, who was both Secretary of State and President Bush’s best friend, also banned him from Foggy Bottom [the State Department headquarters in Washington].
While the State Department ban officially stemmed from Netanyahu’s comment that American foreign policy in the Middle East was “based on lies and distortions,” it was really the result of disagreements on policy. President Bush had pressed Israeli officials not to retaliate against Iraqi Scud missile strikes during the first Gulf War. Netanyahu had disagreed and said Israel should maintain its ability to strike back. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, under heavy pressure, sided with Bush and agreed not to retaliate.
After the war, the Administration convened a conference in Madrid designed to impose a “land for peace” plan on Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians in the wake of the American victory over Saddam Hussein. Netanyahu attended, unhappily, and – again, publicly – objected to the proceedings. Netanyahu also made clear his disgust with the Bush Administration’s threat to withhold loan guarantees to Israel if Israel continued to build in disputed areas on the West Bank. This last issue caused an uproar, and in the 1992 election, Bush saw a precipitous drop in his Jewish support, gaining only 11% – down from the 35% he had received in 1988.
During the Clinton Administration, Netanyahu rose to Prime Minister after winning a 1996 election to replace acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. To say that Clinton and company were disappointed at the result is an understatement. Clinton actively tried to have Netanyahu defeated in the election, but, he later admitted, “I tried to do it in a way that didn’t overtly involve me.” Clinton hadn’t fooled anyone. When Netanyahu next came to the White House, Clinton remembered that Netanyahu “wanted me to know that he knew I wasn’t for him and he beat us anyway.”
Clinton recalled of the episode that Netanyahu “was being very Bibi.” But Clinton had also learned a lesson, recognising that Bibi was now the leader of the country: “If I wanted to support the peace I had to find a way to work with him.” Clinton recognised that he’d been outmanoeuvred: “I wasn’t so much angry as just bemused by the brashness with which he played his hand. But that’s who he is. He did a very good job of it.”
Despite Clinton’s appreciation of Netanyahu’s political abilities, the two remained on different sides of key issues and continued to have a tense relationship. When Clinton did not like how Netanyahu spoke at a joint appearance in 1996, he fumed to aides, “Who’s the f-ing leader of the free world?”
Netanyahu acknowledged in his memoir that he could have handled things better, saying that he “may have overreacted in my tone to the White House campaign of political pressure that preceded and accompanied the visit.” In 1999, Clinton supported Netanyahu challenger Ehud Barak – less surreptitiously this time – and Barak ended Netanyahu’s first run as prime minister.
Clinton had his problems with Netanyahu, but he also recognised Bibi’s skills. In 2019, he said of Netanyahu, “You should never underestimate him, he’s highly intelligent, he understands his electorate… [Bibi is] smart and able and he knows how to hit people where they’re tender.”
Since Netanyahu was out of the prime minister’s office, his interactions with the next president, George W. Bush, were relatively minimal. He still had an impact, though. In Bush’s 2000 campaign, Bush criticised the Clinton Administration for interfering in Israeli politics by helping Barak against Netanyahu. Bush’s critique of Clinton signalled to pro-Israel voters that Bush would be more supportive of Israel than either Clinton or his father had been, and he was.
Netanyahu also knew how to get the Bush Administration to reverse course. In April 2002, Bush demanded that Israel withdraw its troops engaged in Jenin and Nablus operations to stop the terrorist bombings of the Second Intifada. With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s blessing, Netanyahu flew to Washington and spoke to a bipartisan group of senators. “I am concerned that the imperative of defeating terror everywhere is being ignored when the main engine of Palestinian terror is allowed to remain intact,” he told them.
Netanyahu’s words packed a punch in a Washington still focused on responding to 9/11 terror attacks. The Bush Administration returned to its statements that Israel should be allowed to defend itself, which took the pressure off and gave Israel room to manoeuvre. Once again, Netanyahu had used the Jabotinsky method of developing public pressure to help lead to a desired policy outcome.
Netanyahu and his approach received the most severe pushback from the Administration of Barack Obama. Upon their first meeting, Netanyahu recalled disliking Obama’s “tendency to view the world through an anti-colonialist prism,” but he was impressed with “Obama’s intellect and charisma” and felt that they could work together.
Netanyahu’s initial optimism was not borne out. In their first meeting, Obama threatened Netanyahu, saying, “You know, people often read me wrong, but I come from Chicago. I know how to deal with tough rivals.” He then made a throat-slitting motion with his hand, something that Netanyahu said “deeply shocked me because it was so opposed to his restrained character.” According to Netanyahu, “The message was clear and it was meant to strike fear in me.”
In 2010, Netanyahu fumed when he felt that Obama deliberately had Netanyahu and his team cool their heels inside the White House while the President ate his dinner. Worse, Netanyahu felt that Obama had left Netanyahu with “an assignment”, since he had spoken to the Israeli delegation “like we were employees in his business, or students in his class, not representatives of a sovereign state.”
At the same time, Netanyahu alienated Obama by appearing to lecture him on national television in the Oval Office. Bibi’s approach was consistent with the tactic he had learned from his father and Jabotinsky – using a joint appearance with the President to make a public case for his policy prescriptions.
Obama implicitly acknowledged the power of Netanyahu’s approach in his own memoir: “The noise generated by Netanyahu had the intended effect of gobbling up our time, putting us on the defensive and reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister – even one who presided over a fragile coalition government – exacted a domestic political cost that simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, or any of our other closest allies.”
Despite the tension, there were successes for Netanyahu in the Obama years, including the signing in September 2016 of a ten-year, US$38 billion arms agreement. And for all of Obama’s bluster and the harsh statements he directed at Israel through his secretary of state and his vice-president, Israel managed to get through the Obama years without having to sign any ruinous deals that jeopardised its security.
There was one major setback, though. Netanyahu’s 2015 speech against Obama’s Iran deal before a joint session of Congress irked many Democrats, who felt that Netanyahu was showing up Obama. Netanyahu’s memoir shows that he was aware of the risk of alienating Democratic allies, but he thought: “If I don’t take a stand on a nuclear deal that could threaten Israel’s survival… what the hell am I doing here? That clinched it.”
The price was high. Many Democratic allies are still angry with Netanyahu for having given the speech. Even Obama’s vice president recognised how hostile the Obama Administration had been as a whole to Israel and to Netanyahu. At one point, Joe Biden said to Bibi, “You don’t have too many friends here, buddy. I’m the one friend you do have. So call me when you need to.”
The two men did have something resembling a personal friendship. In 1999, Biden was the sole American politician to write Netanyahu a letter after he lost his premiership for the first time. In 2014, Netanyahu and his wife hosted Biden for dinner when Biden visited Israel to attend Ariel Sharon’s funeral. As Netanyahu wrote of the visit, “Biden, always the gentleman, sent [Bibi’s wife] Sara a bouquet of flowers and a thoughtful note the next day.” Biden also has spoken of giving a photo to Netanyahu with the inscription, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”
There were no such friendly gestures between the Obamas and the Netanyahus. Obama even kicked Netanyahu on his way out the door, orchestrating an anti-Israel resolution in the UN demanding that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory” and calling Israeli establishments in “Palestinian territory” a “flagrant violation” under international law. The measure served little purpose beyond revenge. The Administration’s feeble protestations that the US had not been responsible for it fooled no one, least of all Netanyahu, who told the press that “we have no doubt that the Obama Administration initiated it, stood behind it, coordinated on the wording and demanded that it be passed.”
Netanyahu was pleased to still be in office when Obama departed. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, and Netanyahu had had a friendly relationship before Trump’s presidency – Trump recorded a video endorsing Netanyahu in 2013 – and Israeli officials were welcome and frequent guests in the Trump White House. The close relations bore fruit: The Trump Administration pulled out of Obama’s Iran deal, moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and helped bring about the Abraham Accords peace agreements with four Muslim countries. These were all major achievements for Netanyahu. Perhaps more important, Trump’s moves vindicated two long-standing arguments Netanyahu had been making for decades. First, that the West’s fear of the “Arab Street” and the regional instability it would cause was overstated. And second, that there were pathways to peace that did not rely on an agreement with the recalcitrant Palestinians.
After the 2020 election, Netanyahu called Biden to congratulate him on winning the election. It was the right thing to do, as Biden was about to become president and would not have forgiven Bibi if he hadn’t done so. But with Trump leading the polls for the 2024 Republican nomination and a weak Biden vulnerable in the upcoming election, Netanyahu is in a difficult position going into the next cycle. Both the President and his former-president challenger may seek some kind of loyalty test from Netanyahu next year. Trump was so angry when Netanyahu called Biden that he later said, “I haven’t spoken to him since. F— him.”
As for Biden, he has said multiple times that he “loves” Netanyahu, even if they disagree on policy. Biden is more favourably disposed to Israel than Obama, and he also seems to recognise that Netanyahu is a canny political operator and a survivor who has returned again and again upon being counted out.
At the same time, Biden and his Administration have been persistently negative toward the new Government, with Biden offering typically inarticulate criticism: “I think it’s a mistake to think that, as some members of his cabinet – and this is one of the most extreme members of cabinets that I have seen.” He has been obstinate in not issuing an invitation for Netanyahu to visit Washington, a short-sighted stance Biden later abandoned with the vague promise of a meeting once the Administration learned that Netanyahu had planned to go to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
As Netanyahu deals with another censorious administration, the history of his previous interactions with six other American presidents can provide insight into how things may proceed. Netanyahu cannot count on getting the kind of policy support that he got from the Trump Administration. But he does have his own extensive experience to help guide him through the thickets of current American policy. He has cards to play even now.
First, there is his sense of the larger picture, which he derives from reading what he calls “my guide, history books.” Regardless of short-term disagreements, he believes that the US and Israel are on the same side in a larger struggle of free nations against tyrannies. The second card he has to play is patience. He saw the opportunity for the Abraham Accords but waited until he got the right American partner.
As he put it in an interview with the Washington Examiner’s Seth Mandel: “It took me a while to persuade President Trump. Couldn’t persuade President Obama or President Clinton, with whom I worked.”
The third card is his willingness to take his case directly to the American public in a variety of media, even when the American president and he disagree. This strategy may be less effective in Democratic administrations as the left becomes more hostile to Israel, but it still can work with the broad swath of the American public, which supports Israel on the whole.
Most important, Netanyahu knows that dealing with a hostile American administration, Democratic or Republican, is a complex game and one he has occasionally played poorly – or has simply been dealt a very bad hand, as was the case with the hostility toward his country shown by both the elder Bush and Obama. That said, his approach across these seven presidents has led to remarkable successes and demonstrates just how nimble and creative a leader he can be.