In a few hours, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive at the White House for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. For Trump, this will be only his fifth meeting with a foreign head of state since becoming president, and the second one with a leader from the Middle East. For Netanyahu, however, the setting of the meeting will likely feel more familiar, since Trump will be the fourth U.S. President that Netanyahu will have met over the course of the last two decades.
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The first president Netanyahu met in person was Bill Clinton, who received him in the White House more than 20 years ago, following the Likud leader’s surprising victory in Israel’s 1996 election. Clinton and his administration had hoped to see Netanyahu’s rival, Shimon Peres, win that election, and were disappointed by the rise of the young and hawkish Netanyahu. After their first meeting at the White House, Clinton was annoyed by Netanyahu’s approach and conduct, and famously asked his aides – “who is the fu****g superpower here?”
On another occasion, Netanyahu arrived in Washington for a meeting with Clinton, but before going to see the president, appeared at an event organized by Jerry Falwell, an evangelical Christian leader who at the time was accusing Clinton of being a drug dealer and betraying the United States. “I put together 1,000 people or so to meet with Bibi and he spoke to us that night,” Falwell told Vanity Fair in an interview years later, recounting the event. “It was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Mr. Clinton.”
Clinton’s revenge came during the 1999 Israeli elections, in which the White House did very little to disguise its preference for Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, a former Israeli general and Netanyahu’s main rival. Clinton was popular with the Israeli public, and Netanyahu’s confrontations with him didn’t help his political standing at home. Barak won the election by a wide margin, and Netanyahu took a time-out from politics. When he returned to the scene, in 2001, America already had a new president – one that Netanyahu had met before, but with whom he wouldn’t have a real chance to develop a working relationship.
When Netanyahu was prime minister, he developed close ties to Republican leaders in Washington and other parts of the United States, as part of his strategy of mobilizing supporters of Israel in the U.S. to put pressure on the Clinton administration. Netanyahu made sure to personally meet each and every member of Congress or governor of a state who visited to Israel.
One of the most important meetings he had, in that regard, was with then-Texas governor, George W. Bush, who arrived in Israel in 1998 as part of a delegation of governors touring the Holy Land. Out of the entire group of governors, Bush stood out as someone who was already being discussed as a possible presidential contender in the 2000 elections. Netanyahu and Bush can be seen together at the Jerusalem hotel where the members of the delegation were staying – Bush looking much younger than he does today, while Netanyahu looking almost exactly the same as he does today, despite the 19 years that passed.
Yet despite this positive start, when Bush was in the White House Netanyahu found himself on the outside looking in. Bush’s most important meeting during the Israel visit, it turned out, was his helicopter tour over Israel together with Ariel Sharon, who was foreign minister under Netanyahu at the time of the visit, but went on to become prime minister in 2001, entering office just a few weeks after Bush was sworn in as president.
Sharon and Netanyahu were fierce rivals, and the Bush administration was clearly supportive of Sharon, especially after he accepted Bush’s Road Map for Peace plan in 2002, and announced a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2004. Netanyahu initially supported the withdrawal, but then changed his mind at the last moment. Following that, in 2006 he led the Likud to its worst election result in decades – winning only 10% of the vote – and became the leader of the Israeli opposition, while Ehud Olmert replaced Sharon as prime minister and developed a close and friendly relationship with Bush, who still had two years left in office.
When Bush came on a state visit to Israel in 2008, there were reports in the Israeli press that the White House refused to arrange a meeting between him and Netanyahu, because of his conduct surrounding the Gaza withdrawal, and his stated opposition to Bush’s attempts to promote the peace process. Netanyahu’s Likud party denied those reports, and accused Olmert of sabotaging the discussions to arrange a Bush-Netanyahu meeting.
Netanyahu, however, was already looking forward to the future. During a work visit to Washington, D.C., he asked his aides to arrange a 45-minute meeting with a young U.S. senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama, who had just recently announced a presidential run. Netanyahu’s close adviser Ron Dermer – today his ambassador in Washington – participated in the short meeting, which took place at Reagan National Airport and dealt mostly with the Iranian issue. That was the first of many meetings that followed between Netanyahu and Obama, with whom he had a tense relationship for the last eight years.
The last time the two of them met was in September 2016 when Netanyahu visited the United States to speak before the United Nations General Assembly. In that same trip, Netanyahu also met with Trump and with the Democratic candidate in the 2016 elections, Hillary Clinton. The picture of him and Trump, shaking hands in the gold-plated living room at Trump’s Manhattan apartment, has become a symbol of the new potential partnership between the two leaders. Today they will have their first opportunity to sketch out that details of that partnership.