Why Are Obama Officials So Mad at Netanyahu? Because They Can’t Get Even

Obama’s not the first president to loathe Bibi. But the others could retaliate against him at home.

Peter Beinart
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A fraught relationship: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 9, 1996.Credit: AP
Peter Beinart

“Chickenshit” is definitely not the worst thing an American official has said about Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1989, James Baker temporarily barred him from the State Department. After his first meeting with the newly elected Netanyahu in 1996, Bill Clinton exclaimed, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” In 2011, Robert Gates called Bibi “ungrateful.”

Several factors explain this hostility. First, Bibi is a man of the right, and thus particularly frustrating for American officials eager to limit settlement growth and generate a meaningful peace process. Second, Bibi is a de facto American. He attended high school in the United States, college in the United States, graduate school in the United States, got married (for the first time) in the United States, got his first full-time job in the United States and held American citizenship until he was in his thirties.

Even his career in the Israeli government began in the United States, when he was named Deputy Chief of Mission in the Israeli embassy in Washington in 1982. When Netanyahu returned to Israel in 1988, according to Ben Caspit and Ilan Kfir’s biography, "Netanyahu: The Road to Power," he complained that the Jewish state didn’t make the same quality espresso he’d enjoyed in New York.

Why does Bibi’s Americanism outrage American officials? Because it fuels his arrogance. During his time as Israel’s United Nations ambassador in the 1980s, Netanyahu forged deep ties to the American Jewish establishment and to the Republican Party, ties that have only deepened since. These elite bonds, plus Netanyahu’s ability to speak to ordinary Americans in their own idiom (he sprinkles his speeches to U.S. audiences with American cultural references) have convinced him that he can best American presidents on their own turf. As Bibi told settlers in Ofra in a secretly recorded conversation in 2001, “America is something that can be easily maneuveredI wasn’t afraid to maneuver. I wasn’t afraid to confront Clinton.”  When it comes to Bibi’s relations with American presidents, familiarity breeds contempt.

But if Bibi has been alienating American officials since the 1980s, his current tussle with the Obama administration contains a new twist. Bibi hasn’t changed: He’s as arrogant as ever. But the Americans have. In the past, US officials didn’t need to lash out as much verbally because they could make Bibi pay for his defiance. The Obama team can’t.

Think back to late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, James Baker didn’t only bar Netanyahu from Foggy Bottom after the then-deputy foreign minister tried to scuttle America’s secret talks with the PLO. He and President George H.W. Bush refused to give Netanyahu’s boss, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the loan guarantees he wanted to resettle Soviet immigrants absent a halt in settlement growth. Bush and Baker also pushed Shamir to participate in peace talks in Madrid that included Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The result: Shamir’s right-wing government fell; Israel held elections, and Shamir lost to Yitzhak Rabin.

In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration struck back at Bibi even harder. In his memoir, "Innocents Abroad," Martin Indyk writes that in 1999, Bill Clinton “sent” his own political consultants, “Robert Shrum, Stanley Greenberg and James Carville to help get [Ehud] Barak elected.”

Obama has never been able to retaliate against Bibi that way. His unpopularity in Israel has limited his ability to play politics there. More importantly, the collapse of the Israeli center-left has left the White House without a credible Barak-like challenger to get behind. As a result, Netanyahu has felt free to boost Obama’s domestic opponents without Obama being able to do the same.

For Obama, the consequences have been grim. First, unlike Clinton, who only had to endure Netanyahu for three years, Obama has been stuck with him for his entire presidency. Second, he’s faced a structural disadvantage. When Netanyahu opposes an Obama administration policy, many top Democrats and Republicans in Congress rally to the Israeli leaders’ side. In Israel, by contrast, Netanyahu doesn’t feel the same level of political heat.

In researching "The Crisis of Zionism", I was struck by the degree of impotence top administration aides felt in dealing with Israel, at least on the subject of the Palestinians. (On Iran the Obama administration is feistier, because the stakes are another American war). Listening to White House officials talk off the record about their dealings with Netanyahu and his American allies, I sometimes felt I was listening to an official at the Securities and Exchange Commission describe her dealings with Goldman Sachs. Throw in Team Obama’s broader anxiety about America’s declining global power and it’s not hard to see why one of them lashed out to Jeffrey Goldberg.

In the past, American presidents responded to Netanyahu’s transgressions by getting even. All Obama and his aides can do, by contrast, is get mad.  

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