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The resignation of Michael Flynn as U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser has sparked an unprecedented storm that is likely to preoccupy the White House as it prepares to greet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But while this is all uncharted and apparently bewildering territory for Trump and his advisers, Netanyahu is an old hat who’s been there and done that before. The only difference is that in January 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke out and upended Netanyahu’s visit, he viewed it as a godsend, not as a nuisance.
Today, the prime minister was looking forward to using his powwow with Trump to reset U.S.-Israeli relations after eight turbulent and often hostile years with Barack Obama. Nineteen years ago, he came to Washington full of trepidation, well aware of Bill Clinton’s plan to pressure him to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians that would facilitate the continued implementation of the Oslo Accords. The main similarity between the two starkly different visits is that in both cases, the prime minister was under heavy pressure from his right-wing coalition to get from the U.S. president far more than he was willing to give.
On the eve of his meeting with Clinton, Netanyahu attended a raucous rally at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel with Jerry Falwell, the founder of Moral Majority and a harsh critic of the Clinton administration. It was the start of a beautiful friendship with Evangelical Christians, who would support Netanyahu’s right-wing policies for the next two decades, and a precursor of the kind of internal meddling that would reach its zenith in Netanyahu’s GOP-sponsored March 2015 speech to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal.
The Jewish people “are being vilified and scorned and misrepresented,” Netanyahu cried to a roaring crowd. Falwell, in return, anointed him as “the Ronald Reagan of Israel.”
In later years, the meeting between Netanyahu and Falwell gave rise to sinister conspiracy theories. The two, it was claimed, conspired in some way to have Monica Lewinsky’s bombshell allegations of Clinton’s sexual misconduct published the very next day in order to upset the president’s pernicious plot to weaken Israel. No proof of the claim has ever been found.
In any case, when Netanyahu and Clinton met for the first time, the Lewinsky story had not been published yet and the two men negotiated as if business was usual. In order to get Netanyahu to agree to increase the amount of territory that Israel would hand over to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority – those were the days – Clinton even proposed that the U.S. sign a mutual defense treaty with Israel.
In retrospect, the fact that Clinton was willing to offer such a major achievement for Israel, in exchange for what seemed to be a minor concession, may have been a sign of distress and desperation. American and Israeli participants in the meeting said that Clinton seemed preoccupied, stepping out frequently to the bathroom to talk on the phone.
The next day, Netanyahu and Clinton met again, but between their two discussions, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke on the front page of the Washington Post and all hell broke loose. Both leaders went through the motions and Clinton later met with Yasser Arafat as well, offering him a commensurate grand prize – U.S. support for an independent Palestinian state – in exchange for reducing demands for Israeli withdrawals.
But everyone knew the game was over for the time being. Clinton earnestly wanted Middle East peace, but the fight for his political survival was obviously more crucial. Netanyahu’s mood immediately improved. He even called Clinton from his airplane on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force base, reassuring him that “these things usually blow over.” He may have even winked at his aides as he leaned back in his seat, thanking God – or Jerry Falwell – for his deliverance.
It took the Clinton administration more than six months to refocus. In October, Clinton summoned Netanyahu and Arafat to Wye River, Maryland, to hammer out the deal that had eluded him in January. A book published three years ago by conservative writer Daniel Halper claimed that Lewinsky proved to be a gift that kept on giving. Halper says that Netanyahu intimated that Israel would hand over supposed tape recordings made by the Mossad of Clinton’s conversations with Lewinsky, in exchange for the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
In the end, Clinton pressured both sides to agree to a deal, but Netanyahu felt buyer’s remorse as soon as he was on his plane on his way home. He was afraid that his right-wing flank would depose him and that Labor would renege on its pledge to set up a national unity government in their stead. After an initial and largely symbolic withdrawal, which enraged the right, he started dragging his feet, which infuriated his left. Within a few weeks, the two opposing sides joined hands and toppled Netanyahu’s government, paving the way for his defeat at the hands of Ehud Barak in the May 1999 elections.
With Trump, of course, the shoe is on the other foot. Netanyahu is worried that the Flynn affair could distract the new president and prevent him from reaching agreements with his Israeli guest. Netanyahu’s opponents and rivals, however, would like nothing more than for him to return triumphantly from Washington, then get scared of his own shadow, try but fail to appease his coalition partners and speed up his own demise, once again.