Politics: Inside Netanyahu’s head on US elections

What the prime minister thinks but cannot say out loud.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
March 25, 2016 17:18
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shake hands

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shake hands during their meeting in Jerusalem in 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized throughout his career for interfering in American politics.

He has been accused of meddling in American elections, lecturing US presidents, and dividing pro-Israel lawmakers by speaking to Congress about President Barack Obama’s Iran deal.

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There was even a Jerusalem Post article about Netanyahu running for president of the United States, though it was in the paper’s Purim spoof section on Thursday.

But it was no spoof when the prime minister’s wife, Sara, told the life partner of another Likud politician in a taped conversation in July 2014 that had Netanyahu been born in America, he would have easily been president of the United States today.

Due to his controversial past, when it comes to American politics, Netanyahu is raising eyebrows nowadays in Washington with his surprisingly good behavior.

He chose not to attend this week’s AIPAC Policy Conference in which four of the five remaining presidential candidates spoke. The announcement that he was staying home caused the usual awkward dispute with the Obama administration about the circumstances, but by not going, he avoided entering the political minefield that opposition leader Isaac Herzog stepped in.

Netanyahu has not hosted a presidential candidate in a long time, and he denied to the Post’s Diplomatic Correspondent Herb Keinon that he had a role in Republican front-runner Donald Trump postponing a trip to Israel that had been set for December until after the election.

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Regarding the election, Netanyahu has been tight-lipped. In recent meetings with visiting Republican delegations, he has made a point of not raising American domestic politics at all.

His statement to Keinon four months ago was especially diplomatic, even for a former diplomat: “Israel is fortunate to enjoy broad support and friendship among the candidates running for president,” he said.

Since then, he has been mum on the race, which makes any tidbit he says especially significant.

His press conference Wednesday night was mostly about terrorism. Though it is rare for Netanyahu to address the Hebrew press when elections are not upcoming, it was not the first time he has called the local media together to make sure they noticed when world events have proven that his warnings to the international community were correct.

Arguably the most interesting statement he made at the event came at the end of the press conference, when he answered a final question about the possibility of the Obama administration making a last ditch effort to reinvigorate an Israeli-Palestinian peace process using a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Netanyahu began by issuing his usual thinly veiled criticism of Obama, recalling that the president had told the UN in September 2011 that “peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations.”

Then the prime minister related to the race to succeed Obama, saying “I listened to all the candidates who spoke there, the candidates for president of the United States, and they all reaffirmed that stance.”

The first significant thing about that statement was that Netanyahu revealed that he made a point of watching – or at least listening to – the speeches of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Republican candidates Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.

That is quite a time commitment for a busy prime minister during what he admitted – in a closeddoor Likud faction meeting that he did know was taped Monday – is “a war.”

He must have enjoyed watching Clinton, followed by Kasich, Trump and Cruz (whose emotional address ended at 1:30 a.m. Israel time), trying to outdo each other in their pro-Israel rhetoric. The commitments they made were recorded in Jerusalem, and whoever wins will be reminded of what he or she said, especially the next time moving the American embassy to Israel’s capital is raised.

While sources close to Netanyahu were relieved by much of what Clinton said, they cringed when they saw reports about her speech headlined that she had said that if elected she would invite Netanyahu to Washington. If she had really said that, Netanyahu would have had reason to be overjoyed.

“One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House,” was her actual quote, pointedly leaving Netanyahu’s name out, as if in a prayer that his government would fall by then.

Herzog, who spoke an hour before Clinton, admitted that he noticed that nuance in her speech.

But the positives in all four speeches undoubtedly outweighed any negative for Netanyahu, as evidenced by his statement in the press conference. By saying that all four of the candidates agreed with him and not with the viewpoint he is attributing to Obama on such a fundamental issue, he expressed hope that better days lie ahead.

Based on that, from Netanyahu’s perspective, there will be a major upgrade in the White House in 300 days, no matter who wins the election – with the exception of Sanders, who did not attend the event and released a foreign policy statement that even Meretz would oppose.

To understand what Netanyahu thinks about the American presidential race, there is no need to turn to his current staff, who would be even more careful than he has been to remain silent. There are plenty of former Netanyahu advisers who can shed light on what is in his head.

More than one former Netanyahu adviser recounted past conversations in which he made the following incredible statement: “I want to know what it’s like for just one day to have a president who has my back.”

Netanyahu passed 10 years in office last week, counting all of his terms. The presidents during every moment of those 10 years were Bill Clinton and Obama, who both had adversarial relationships with Netanyahu.

He did not get to enjoy the tenure of George W. Bush, as former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert did. Sharon and Bush rode horses together. Olmert and Bush talked for hours, because they enjoyed each other’s company – a concept unthinkable with the current leaders.

The former Netanyahu advisers stressed that, contrary to what some believe, being Republican is not a required qualification for a president with whom Netanyahu could get along.

“It doesn’t matter if he or she is a Democrat or Republican, as long as the president is a partner,” a former Netanyahu adviser said. “If [New York Sen. Charles] Chuck Schumer was president, he wouldn’t have a problem with him, regardless of his party. It’s a matter of trust. Schumer’s always stood by Israel. There are plenty of other Democrats you could say that with.”

Whether Netanyahu would say that of Clinton, none of the former advisers could say with confidence.

Whether he would prefer a critical but consistent Clinton over an enthusiastically pro-Israel and anti-Muslim – yet extremely unpredictable – Trump, no one could even make an educated guess.

Netanyahu touts himself to his staff as an expert on American politics and public opinion, based on his upbringing in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, his years at MIT, and his time representing Israel in Washington and New York.

More than one former adviser questioned whether he is still such an expert, because America has been altered so much demographically, and the way Americans receive their news has changed completely, to media Netanyahu does not understand.

Nevertheless, all the former advisers would agree that Netanyahu would be the last person to admit to anyone that he has no idea, especially about something so important for Israel’s future.

Netanyahu will continue to attempt to remain quiet and not interfere in the US race. No one but the prime minister himself knows exactly what is in his head when it comes to the contest.

But we all know that he is watching closely.

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