For Obama, Working With Netanyahu Was Like Dealing With the Republicans, Former Aide Writes

‘It’s not on the level’ was the mantra used to describe the prime minister, Ben Rhodes says in his new book, adding that Netanyahu's 2015 speech to Congress angered Democrats and helped Obama win the votes needed to preserve the Iranian nuclear deal

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Obama meets with Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, 2014.
Obama meets with Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, 2014.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama said in 2012 that dealing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was like dealing with his rivals in the Republican Party, and that Netanyahu was dishonest toward his administration, former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes says in his new book.

The memoir by Rhodes, a senior media and foreign policy adviser to the 44th president, was published in the United States on Tuesday.

Rhodes, who was involved in many of the clashes between the Obama administration and Netanyahu over both the Iran deal and the Palestinian issue, mentions Netanyahu more than 25 times in his book, which spans the entire eight years of the Obama administration. He describes a tense relationship and a lack of trust between Obama and Netanyahu, and puts most of the blame on the latter, whom he accuses of openly aligning with the Republicans.

One peculiar dialogue that Rhodes describes took place in the spring of 2012, as Obama was preparing for a speech at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby group. Obama, according to Rhodes, expressed frustration at having to fight back against what he saw as lies and distortions crafted by Netanyahu against his administration. He said he had never been more annoyed as president than during preparations for that speech, Rhodes writes.

As the former adviser puts it: “’This is as annoyed as I’ve been as president,’ he said. He was tired, and I could tell by the edits he was holding that he’d been working on them for several hours. ‘It’s not on the level,’ I said. This is a phrase that we used, repeatedly, to describe the dishonesty we often felt surrounded by. ‘It’s not on the level,’ he repeated. ‘Dealing with Bibi is like dealing with the Republicans.’”

Ben Rhodes speaks during an interview in Washington, with another Obama adviser, Valerie Jarrett, to his right, January 15, 2016.Credit: Drew Angerer / Bloomberg

When discussing Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Iran three years later, Rhodes writes that “by 2015, Netanyahu had become almost a de facto member of the Republican caucus.” He says Netanyahu’s speech made Democratic members of Congress angry at the Israeli leader for interfering in American politics and helped the Obama administration gain the votes it needed for the Iranian nuclear deal to survive objections in Congress.

Skipping Israel in ‘09

Rhodes writes about Netanyahu and Israel mainly on two issues: Iran and the peace process with the Palestinians. The first mention of Netanyahu revolves around Obama’s decision not to visit Israel during his trip to the Middle East in 2009, during which he gave his famous speech in Cairo about the future of the Arab world.

“One final decision was whether Obama should travel to Israel after going to Cairo. Given the concern about not wanting the speech to be seen solely through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, we decided not to go,” Rhodes writes.

“Ironically, we would be criticized for years by Netanyahu’s supporters for that decision, even though it was responsive to their concerns. Indeed, this established a pattern — a post facto criticism of Obama for not being sufficiently pro-Israel, which ignored the fact that he wasn’t doing anything tangible for the Palestinians and which absolved Israel’s own government for its failure to take any meaningful steps toward peace.”

Rhodes claims later in the book that Netanyahu was not negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians, and that he “had mastered a certain kind of leverage: using political pressure within the United States to demoralize any meaningful push for peace, just as he used settlements as a means of demoralizing the Palestinians.”

He describes one interesting dialogue between Obama and France’s president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, who told Obama that he “despises” Netanyahu for lying on the peace process. “Barack, he said, you are absolutely right. Let me tell you why I did what I did. I despise this man Netanyahu. He humiliated you in the Oval Office. He lied to me,” Rhodes quotes Sarkozy, describing how the French leader “went on and on — grabbing [Obama’s] lapels, pounding the table for emphasis.”

Brooklyn, not Tel Aviv

Rhodes, the son of an Episcopalian father and a Jewish mother, also discusses his family’s views on Israel, and how they have changed over the decades. “As secular Jews in postwar New York City, my mother’s family maintained its sense of Jewishness in part through support for Israel,” he writes.

“Some of this was rooted in guilt — they’d emigrated to Brooklyn, not Tel Aviv; and some was rooted in the heroic Israel of the 1960s and ’70s, Jews building a nation in the desert, fighting off Arab armies, led by towering figures like Golda Meir, who seemed both indefatigable and profoundly just.

“But as the demographics of Israel changed throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and invading Arab armies were replaced by occasional acts of terror, the Israel that my mother’s generation idealized was increasingly eclipsed by an Israel driven by the settler movement and ultra-orthodox émigrés. That was Netanyahu’s political base, and he knew how to play in American politics on their behalf.”

On the Iranian issue, Rhodes harshly criticizes Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015, which was initiated by the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill. “This type of interference in American foreign policy — a foreign leader invited to lobby the U.S. Congress against the policy of a sitting president — would have been unthinkable in 2009,” Rhodes writes.

“But by 2015, Netanyahu had become almost a de facto member of the Republican caucus, and Republicans had abandoned any norms about working with a foreign government to undermine the policies of a sitting president.”

He adds, however, that the speech did not achieve its goal of gaining enough votes in Congress to stymie the deal. Rhodes says it had the opposite effect: “after Netanyahu’s speech was announced, the dynamic shifted; suddenly, the Democrats were more annoyed at Netanyahu for interfering in our politics than at anything we were doing.”

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