Benjamin Netanyahu has an America problem - opinion

Netanyahu has assiduously fought to thwart American efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in every administration where he could.

 Netanyahu has assiduously fought to thwart American efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in every administration where he could. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu has assiduously fought to thwart American efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in every administration where he could.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

In his new book about US-Israel relations, The Arc of a Covenant, Walter Russel Mead writes, “Never in American history have so many presidents of so many points of view expended so much effort and political capital on a single objective – and never has so signal a failure in American foreign policy led to so little meaningful reflection and change.”

Benjamin Netanyahu can take a lion’s share of the credit for that failure. Netanyahu has assiduously fought to thwart American efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in every administration where he could. His rhetoric and his actions sometimes changed, but his goal was consistent.

He praised George H.W. Bush’s “efforts to advance peace in the Middle East,” discussed Bill Clinton’s peace initiatives in a positive way, endorsed Barack Obama’s call for a two-state solution and praised Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan – all while stridently opposing those and every other effort. He did it all in colloquial American, unencumbered by translations, humility or tact.

Amir Tibon, writing in Haaretz, asks, “What is it about him that makes US presidents, one after the other, find him so difficult to work with?” The answer may be seen in some presidential reactions.

Clinton once refused to see him at the White House after one of Bibi’s arrogant lectures. Following a round of failed peace talks, ambassador Dennis Ross said the president asked aides, “Who’s the f***ing superpower here?”

 Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords (credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER) Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords (credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)

He was declared persona non grata at the Bush 41 State Department and snubbed by the Obama White House

Obama was deeply offended by Netanyahu condescendingly lecturing him on live television from the White House and going behind his back to lead the Republican opposition to the president’s nuclear agreement with Iran. 

The partnership with the GOP was reportedly engineered by ambassador Ron Dermer, a former GOP operative known as “Bibi’s brain.” As ambassador to Washington, he took an unprecedented deep dive into partisan politics that made him “de facto, persona non grata at the White House,” Haaretz reported.

Even Trump, who boasts he has done more for Israel than anyone and accused American Jews of being disloyal to Israel and Netanyahu, became fed up. “F*** him,” he told Israeli journalist Barak Ravid. “Bibi did not want to make peace. Never did.”

It wasn’t just the Americans who didn’t trust Netanyahu. The list includes Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was overheard on an open mike telling Obama, “I cannot bear Netanyahu. He’s a liar.”

He has campaigned in every election as Israel’s greatest expert on the US, and he may be better known in the US than any other Israeli leader and more fluent in the English language than some US presidents. But America has changed dramatically since he went to high school in the Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham Township in the 1960s and MIT in the ’70s. This is not the America of those decades nor is it the same Jewish community.

The upcoming elections

ISRAELIS ARE going to the polls in November for the fifth time in three years. Polls so far indicate another indecisive outcome with no clear majority for either side. If Netanyahu wins a sixth term in the November elections, he will have a serious American problem, both at the grassroots and in the White House. In a country trending farther to the right in recent elections, polls show him as the leading candidate but still lacking the coalition partners that could give him a majority.

This summer he has been purging moderates and critics in his Likud party in favor of hardening his right-wing and religious extremist support.

President Joe Biden knows Netanyahu better and longer than any of his predecessors. They have fundamental differences dating back decades, plus some leftovers from the time Biden was Obama’s vice president. Topping the list are settlements, Palestinian rights and assistance, peace processing and, once again, a potentially revived Iran nuclear agreement.

Netanyahu has never met an American president he didn’t soon offend, and along the way he has systematically driven a growing wedge between American Jews and Israel. He also has been notably successful in widening the partisan divide on Israel, driving even pro-Israel Democrats away from active support.

He came to Washington 40 years ago during the Reagan administration, quickly aligning himself with neo-conservatives and forming an alliance with Newt Gingrich. They shared a penchant for slash-and-burn politics. Bibi once told an interviewer “I speak Republican.” 

Netanyahu has in one way or another endorsed Republican presidential candidates for years, yet when they went to the polls, American Jews voted 3:1 for the Democrats. His embrace of the evangelical and alt-right Republicans has alienated many Jews. Alon Pinkas wrote in Haaretz that Netanyahu can easily be mistaken for “a Republican senator from a very red state.”

He is a divisive racist with a strong autocratic bent who is currently on trial on multiple corruption charges.

Bowing to pressure from his ultra-religious coalition partners, he reneged on a deal for mixed prayer at the Western Wall, offending many Conservative and Reform Jews in the US. Questions of recognizing conversions and gay rights help widen the chasm.

Netanyahu is going in the opposite direction from the majority of American Jewish voters. For years, the polls have been showing that support for Israel is moving down the list of priorities for Jewish voters. As that shrinks, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the right-leaning lobby and longtime Netanyahu ally, has turned to shoring up its Congressional base by endorsing and funding far-right MAGA Republican candidates and election deniers, adding to the angst of most Jews and turning the partisan divide on the issue into a yawning chasm.

Another Netanyahu government can be expected to further erode the willingness of Jewish voters to go to bat for an Israeli government that attacks the leaders they vote for, the policies they embrace and the Israel they love.

Netanyahu has a serious problem when the one thing Biden and Trump seem to agree on is they find the former Israeli prime minister untrustworthy, unreliable and deceptive. 

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist and former AIPAC legislative director.