Remember when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed Mitt Romney for president of the United States against the incumbent President Barack Obama? Neither do I.
But as Israeli politicians and their official and unofficial spokesmen get caught up in the political reality show now airing in the US, and feel the urge to pick their favorites and offer their analyses, predictions and hopes, the diplomatic faux pas Netanyahu never committed in 2012 is worth recalling.
Not only did Netanyahu not endorse Romney in 2012, but Netanyahu has publicly aired nothing but personal praise for President Obama, both before the last presidential election and after. This is despite the pressure campaign the Obama administration launched against Israel just before Netanyahu’s own reelection in 2009 and the tension between the US and Israeli governments ever since.
Yet everyone seems to know that Netanyahu “all but endorsed Mitt Romney,” as an article published on MSNBC described it.
Though no one can definitively point to how Netanyahu “all but endorsed” Romney, ABC News reported two days after the election that Netanyahu’s support for Romney was a “widely held assumption.”
Some say Netanyahu showed favor to Romney by the warm reception Romney received when he visited Israel in late July 2012, less than four months before the election. But other US presidential candidates have visited Israel. One might say that visiting Israel has become an important part of any presidential candidate’s campaign. Four years before Romney’s visit, one such candidate was then-Senator Barack Obama, who was warmly received by then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Former Israeli ambassador Zalman Shoval, who participated in the Netanyahu-Obama meeting in 2008, described the Netanyahu-Romney meeting of 2012, in which he also participated, as “typical”: “It was actually very similar... to the meeting we had four-and-a-half years ago with then-candidate Obama. And candidate McCain. It was quite a typical meeting.”
Others have pointed to the fact that during the reception, Netanyahu called Romney a “true friend of Israel.”
But that is a compliment Israeli leaders hand out like candy.
Shortly before Romney’s trip to Israel, in June 2012, for example, Netanyahu used it for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Netanyahu recently used it in his meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, saying Greece was a “true friend” of Israel. When Bill Clinton visited Israel for the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, President Reuven Rivlin similarly called Clinton a “true friend of Israel.”
Yet others have pointed to a television advertisement that aired in Florida in September 2012, which featured video of Netanyahu and the slogan, “The world needs American strength, not apologies,” an implicit criticism of President Obama’s various speaking engagements in countries around the world (except Israel), dubbed the “Apology Tour” by Republicans. But the footage was from the Associated Press, which does not need permission from a public figure like Netanyahu to license its content. When asked about the ad, the prime minister’s spokesman at the time, Mark Regev, said Netanyahu was never consulted.
THEN THERE is the fact that Netanyahu and Romney go way back, all the way to the Boston Consulting Group, where they both worked in the late 1970s. As Romney described their relationship in his address to AIPAC in March 2012, “Israel’s current prime minister is not just a friend, he’s an old friend.” But Netanyahu denied the two had been friends when they worked at the Boston Consulting Group. In an article published in July 2012 (around the same time as Romney’s visit), Netanyahu told Vanity Fair, “I remember him for sure, but I don’t think we had any particular connections... I knew him and he knew me, I suppose.”
Netanyahu even went as far as to flatly deny that he supported Romney on American television.
“People are trying to draw me into the American election, and I’m not going to do that,” Netanyahu told CNN in September 2012. “But I will say that we value, we cherish the bipartisan support for Israel in the United States, and we’re supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.”
Yet no matter how much the prime minister and his office publicly denied supporting Romney, the allegation took root, and it caused the prime minister trouble at home and in the US.
A month after the election, in a closed session of the Saban Forum at the Brookings Institute, former White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel – the brains behind the pressure campaign launched at the start of Obama’s presidency – declared, “Netanyahu supported the wrong candidate in the US elections and lost.”
Other officials in the administration, some of whom are much less friendly to Israel than Emmanuel, likely viewed things similarly. And with an administration whose officials routinely went to the media with venomous ad hominem attacks on Netanyahu, a belief that Netanyahu tried to put them out of office may very well have contributed to tensions with the administration later on. It might have even contributed to the attacks on Netanyahu by the Obama administration following Netanyahu’s recent election. It may have even colored decisions on substantive policy toward Israel.
In September 2012, for example, Haaretz commentator Chemi Shalev wrote that an Obama associate attributed a refusal by Obama to meet with the prime minister at the time to Netanyahu’s alleged support for Romney. “It’s hard for us to tell when he is functioning as the prime minister of Israel or Mitt Romney’s campaign manager,” Shalev quoted the source as saying.
In Israel, left-wing and sensationalist pundits ate up the claim that Netanyahu “bet” on Romney which enabled them to mock Netanyahu’s failed election gamble when Romney lost.
In 2016, with elections for the next president of the United States less than nine months away, right-wing politicians – who in some capacity, even if in appearance only, represent ministers, the Israeli government, or the prime minister himself – may be tempted to make the mistake Netanyahu never did: publicly favor their dream candidate or party.
Indeed, according to a recent article published in this publication (Lahav Harkov’s “Israeli Right Rallies Around Rubio
,” February 7, 2016), some are already making that mistake.
But the US presidential contest is not just another season of Survivor. The losers of this race do not go home, but remain in Washington or otherwise in the public sphere, driving policy that affects Israel.
More importantly, in this program, viewers are voting for the leader of the most important country in the world, and Israel’s most important ally. The next president may sign the agreement that determines US aid to Israel for a decade to come. Whoever is chosen, he – or she – will not take kindly to interference by foreign politicians in the US election, certainly on the side of his or her opponent. Neither will his, or her, party.
An Israeli politician who thinks he can play pundit or even influence a political system that is wholly foreign to him, and a presidential race that has proved perplexing even for veteran US politicians, is not just taking part in the fun, he is playing with Israel’s future.
Excepting criticism of presidential candidates who are openly hostile to Israel, with so much on the line, creating even the appearance that the prime minister or members of the government support one candidate or party over the other is not a risk worth taking.
The writer is director of Likud Anglos, a Likud Central Committee member, and an attorney admitted to practice law in New York and Israel.
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