Washington Watch: Meddling

Netanyahu may not have any friends in the White House, but he does among Republicans.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a meeting of the Likud party in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a meeting of the Likud party in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu dispatched his spokesman on Sunday to announce that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) didn’t know what he was talking about when he said the prime minister told him in January that he was troubled by the Republican presidential candidates’ Muslim bashing.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is very careful to avoid even the appearance of preference among American presidential candidates,” spokesman David Keyes told The Times of Israel on Sunday. He said Netanyahu “did not express any opinion about the candidates or any of their positions.”
To say Netanyahu doesn’t meddle in American politics and presidential campaigns is like calling Donald Trump modest and unassuming.
No foreign leader has plunged deeper into American partisan politics than Netanyahu and over such a long period.
Kaine told a Virginia talk radio show last week that Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told him separately they were “especially” worried about “some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric coming out of some of the candidates because they are societies that are too sectarian.”
Trump announced he was going to Israel last December to meet with his friend Netanyahu, for whom he’d made a campaign video in 2013, but the trip – arranged by Trump’s Jewish son-in-law – was suddenly canceled after Netanyahu said he “rejected” the billionaire’s harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Publicly the Prime Minister’s Office said he’d meet with all American presidential candidates but privately the word went out to Trump that he’d be wise to change his plans.
Trump reportedly was miffed with Netanyahu, which may help explain his shifting positions on Israel, notably his assertion – since reversed – that he would remain neutral in any peace negotiations and his conflicting statements on the status of Jerusalem. Trump had also offended Netanyahu’s benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, with what some saw as anti-Jewish stereotyping at a meeting in December in Las Vegas.
SOME OF Trump’s comments about Jewish businessmen and his refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal capital were booed by some of the wealthy and influential Republican Jews at Adelson’s Las Vegas casino. Adelson and the Republican Jewish Coalition are holding another session this week and only Ted Cruz will be speaking.
Netanyahu and Adelson are very tight and it is likely the prime minister will back the presidential candidate anointed by the casino mogul. Netanyahu may try to be a bit more subtle that he was four years ago.
His top political adviser at the time, Ron Dermer, held a Jerusalem fundraiser for Mitt Romney, and Netanyahu himself virtually endorsed the Republican nominee. It was no secret that the prime minister loathed President Barack Obama and wanted to see him defeated.
Dermer, now ambassador to Washington, had a long history as a Republican political operative before making aliya, and his partisan fervor hasn’t diminished since becoming an Israeli diplomat. He is widely believed to be the source behind many of the anti-Obama leaks over the years attributed in Israeli media to “sources close to the Prime Minister’s Office.”
The mutual distrust between Obama and Netanyahu began shortly after both came to office seven years ago and has only deepened. Most recently Netanyahu canceled a March White House meeting. Some saw that as payback for what the prime minister felt was a slight by Obama, who would not meet with Netanyahu when he came to Washington a year ago to lead the Republican lobbying opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.
Dermer had secretly arranged with Republican House leadership for Netanyahu to speak to Congress and the American people in opposition to the six-nation nuclear agreement with Iran, a top Obama priority.
That was easily the most blatant piece of meddling ever.
Other prime ministers and other presidents have dabbled in each other’s politics, but nothing to compare to the leader of a foreign government partnering with the opposition to trash and block the policies of a sitting American president.
But Netanyahu’s meddling has a long history. In the 1980s, when he was the opposition leader, Netanyahu worked closely with the Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, to undermine the pro-peace policies of Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
Netanyahu, who once boasted to an interviewer, “I speak Republican,” has made no secret of where he stands in American politics.
He just appointed as his spokesman and public relations adviser Ran Baratz, a person who has called the president of the United States an anti-Semite and insulted the secretary of state.
“Obama’s response to Netanyahu’s speech [to Congress attacking the Iran agreement] – this is what modern anti-Semitism looks like,” said Baratz. He has called Obama the “pro-Arab, anti-Israel president,” and said American Jews who voted for him “are the most extreme in their criticism of Israel.”
He said Secretary of State John Kerry’s “mental age doesn’t exceed 12.”
Amazingly, Baratz’s new job description is to coordinate Netanyahu’s communication strategy and Israel’s message to the world.
Little wonder Netanyahu’s relationships with world leaders, and not just the Americans, is so poor.
By going ahead with the appointment after Baratz’s insults were widely reported can only be seen as a tacit endorsement by the prime minister.
Netanyahu may not have any friends in the White House – an anonymous aide once called him “chickenshit” – but he does among Republicans. One of those is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was in Jerusalem last week.
Graham advised Netanyahu to quickly conclude a 10-year strategic agreement with the US before Obama leaves office because the next administration, Republican or Democrat, will face serious “budget constraints.”
But Netanyahu rejected the advice. A story in Israel Hayom, Adelson’s newspaper that is seen as reflecting Netanyahu’s views, said, “Israel is sticking to its guns” on insisting US aid be increased from $3.1 billion to $5b. a year. A senior defense official was quoted repeating Netanyahu’s earlier threat that “ if [his] demand for an increase in aid is not met” he will wait for the next president.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) was in Israel this week with one of several congressional delegations that met with Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. As a budget hawk Ryan may have given similar advice.
After this summer’s conventions, the two presidential nominees may show up as well for photo ops and Netanyahu’s endorsement. Everyone will be watching to see if he learned anything from his clumsy and failed effort to influence the 2012 elections. History suggests he hasn’t.