Describing his sometimes volatile relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former U.S. President Barack Obama writes in his new book, "A Promised Land," that "Netanyahu's vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power."
According to a copy of the book obtained in advance by Jewish Insider before its release on Tuesday, Obama writes that Netanyahu is a “smart, canny, tough and a gifted communicator” who could be “charming, or at least solicitous” when it suited him.
The former president invokes a conversation he had with Netanyahu in a Chicago airport lounge in 2005, shortly after Obama was elected to the Senate.
Obama writes that Netanyahu was “lavishing praise” on him for “an inconsequential pro-Israel bill” he had backed when he served in the Illinois state legislature. However, Obama notes, when it came to policy disagreements, the prime minister was able to use his knowledge of U.S. politics and media to fend off efforts by his administration.
Obama points out that his then-chief of staff, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, told him when he assumed office that “You don’t get progress on peace when the American president and the Israeli prime minister come from different political backgrounds.”
Obama says he started understanding that point of view after spending time with the prime minister and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Obama writes he has sometimes pondered whether “things might have played out differently” if he had not been president, if Israel had had a different prime minister and if Abbas had been younger.
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Obama blamed Netanyahu for an “orchestrated” effort to put his administration on the defensive, “reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister exacted a domestic political cost” that didn’t exist in relations with other world leaders.
When Netanyahu visited Washington in 2010 to attend the annual AIPAC policy conference, some media outlets reported that Obama deliberately “snubbed” Netanyahu by walking out of a tense meeting, leaving Netanyahu and his aides in the Roosevelt Room until they think of a solution to the stagnant peace talks.
But Obama insists in his book that he suggested to Netanyahu that he “pause” their conversation and resume it after a previously scheduled commitment he had.
Obama said that the meeting lasted longer than it was supposed to, and “Netanyahu still had a few items he wanted to cover.” Netanyahu said “he was happy to wait,” Obama writes, and the second meeting ended on “cordial terms.”
But the next day Emanuel “stormed into” the Oval Office citing the media reports that Obama humiliated Netanyahu, “leading to accusations” that the president had allowed his personal feelings to damage the U.S.-Israel relationship. “That was a rare instance when I outcursed Rahm,” Obama writes.
AIPAC leaders themselves also took issue with Obama's Israel policy, he writes, saying that the organization shifted rightwards when Israeli politics did, "even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy."
He says that during his 2008 presidential run, he was targeted by a "whisper campaign" that sought to paint him as "insufficiently supportive — or even hostile toward — Israel." Despite his large-scale win among the Jewish community, in which he garnered 70 percent of the Jewish vote, "as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties."
His then-speechwriter David Rhodes said that the target was painted on his back not due to his policy, but due to him being "a Black man with a Muslim name who lived in the same neighborhood as Louis Farrakhan and went to Jeremia Wright’s church," referring to the controversial preacher who made anti-Israel and other controversial comments.
He adds that legislators and candidates "risked being tagged as 'anti-Israel' (and possibly antisemitic) and [were] confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election” if they "criticized Israel policy too loudly."