Netanyahu and Obama at War: Part I

Netanyahu and Obama at War: Part I Netanyahu


Howard Adelman

On 5 January 2016 on America’s Public Broadcasting Network (PBS) on the program “Frontline,” the station broadcast “Netanyahu at War,” an epic account of the conflict between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) and President Barak Obama of the United States over American Middle East Policy.  Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser produced the documentary.

After watching it, I thought it should have been entitled, “Netanyahu and Obama at War” even though only about half the program focuses on that phase of Netanyahu’s relations with the United States. The program began, as do many dramatic series on television, with a series of very brief clips of strong opinions voiced by many of Middle East observers and specialists dealing with the last decade-and-a-half and subsequently sprinkled throughout the documentary. The range of experts included in the show was very impressive. And they virtually all spoke as frankly as Netanyahu did when he upbraided President Obama in his own White House. The climax of the program took place when Netanyahu visited the United States and in a joint press conference, Netanyahu lectured Obama in public. Netanyahu’s famous address to a joint session of Congress where he received 26 standing ovations emerged as an anti-climax, though it is portrayed at the beginning of the documentary as the pinnacle of the war between the two.

The program began in March 2015 in Jerusalem at the Prime Minister’s residence when Prime Minister Netanyahu was determined to stop Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran just before he was about to the deliver his famous speech to the American Congress. (Full disclosure. I have written a great deal in support of that deal and have been critical of the stance that Netanyahu took on the deal.) The television program, at least on the surface, tried to take a non-partisan position of detachment.

After all, the show opened with Eyal Arad, part of Netanyahu’s inner circle in the early nineties, but more recently the two have fallen out over accusations that Arad had been the conduit through which Israeli NGOs received foreign funding, a charge Arad found hypocritical since Netanyahu offered him a job once to be paid by foreign donors. Ayad stated that Netanyahu had a messianic notion of himself as a person called to service in a mission to save the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel more particularly. Ayad was followed by Tachi Hanegbi, another close adviser to Netanyahu, who declared that Netanyahu had never before made such an important speech. Bibi believed he had a historic role to play. Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land, then appeared and stated that Bibi wants to be the person that stops the evil power of Iran in the same way that Churchill stopped Nazi Germany. Netanyahu was clear. He wanted to make the strongest case possible against the deal so that he could go down in history as the person who warned us all about what is about to happen.

Peter Baker of The New York Times then appeared and stated that it is rare for anyone to come to America and directly tell the President of the United States that he is wrong. In fact, I believe it was unprecedented. Even more audacious, this foreign leader interfered directly in American foreign affairs and told members of Congress that they have a duty to stop Obama, to prevent their own president from going forward with the Iranian nuclear deal with Iran. The risk to Israeli-American relations was enormous as Ronen Bergman (The Secret War with Iran) pronounced subsequently.

Further, it was an enormous gamble. Because, as Chemi Shalev of Haaretz said, Bibi was willing to sacrifice U.S.-Israeli relations to advance his goal. So Bibi addressed the Republican-controlled Congress with many Democrats boycotting the session making it clear that this was a totally partisan affair with a foreign Prime Minister lining up with the official opposition to the President. Unprecedented is too weak a characterization for what was taking place. As Bibi began in traditional Zionist rather than just revisionist political-speak, “The days when Jews were passive in front of genocidal enemies are over.”

The Congressional applause was overwhelming. Bibi then insisted that we always have to remember that the greatest danger facing our world is when there is a marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. But Bibi went further. He lectured Obama, an ex-law professor who used to teach constitutional law, on the meaning of the American constitution and what it demanded of its political leaders. Iran’s founding document promises death, tyranny and the pursuit of jihad in opposition to the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The two counties, Bibi insisted, were foundationally sworn enemies. Epic indeed. A person with a messianic complex believing that he was at a crossroads in history with a Churchillian mission to stop evil in its tracks!

The documentary then switched to Obama declaring that Obama had never been as furious and that the White House saw Netanyahu’s chutzpah as a usurpation. One commentator inexplicably even described the livid feeling of the White House as feeling that a coup d’état had been attempted. Netanyahu’s position was not simply a disagreement over Obama’s policy, but an outright attack on what Obama regarded as a central achievement for his foreign policy legacy. Sandy Berger, former national security advisor, in fact, introduced the theme that Obama set immediately after his inauguration – to recast America as a close friend of the Islamic world and, to that end, Obama wanted to show that the US was no longer joined at the hip to Israel.

David Remnick of The New Yorker called the whole episode a humiliation for Obama taking place at a very sensitive moment in the negotiations with Iran. Obama, in his follow-up press conference noted that Netanyahu had not offered an alternative scenario. For if there was no deal, Iran would immediately resume pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. Of course, there was an implicit alternative: the United States in concert with Israel using even more coercive pressure on Iran. The problem was not an absence of an alternative strategy, but the efficaciousness of such a strategy in comparison to the diplomatic route. Further, the coercive strategy stood behind the diplomatic channel to suggest to Iran what could happen if no agreement was reached. Of course, for the U.S. (and Israel) the alternative was Iran putting its effort to develop nuclear weapons in high gear without U.S. and Israeli good intelligence access to Iran’s progress.

Aaron David Miller, who had worked in the State Department for 25 years from 1978 to 2003, saw the clash as a train wreck bound to happen given the dysfunction coming from both sides. He was the first commentator in the documentary to suggest the source of the problem had a double root. That provided the segue to allow the documentary to go back in history and trace the historical roots of the conflict in terms of Netanyahu’s personal history:

  • Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, was a professor of history at Cornell who saw himself as unable to get tenure at Hebrew University at the time because of his strong revisionist beliefs; Benzion saw the world as fundamentally hostile to the Jewish people, as Miller described him, with the Nazi Holocaust just the latest and worst manifestation of an age-old hostility to the Jewish people
  • As a result, from the age of 7, Bibi grew up in the U.S. where in New York and Philadelphia he learned to speak like an American and to possess a deep love of and admiration for the U.S.
  • Bibi still had to earn his Israeli spurs: Netanyahu when he was in the IDF as a young officer was part of the special Israeli strike force disguised as maintenance crew that stormed a hijacked Sabena plane scheduled to fly from Brussels to Tel Aviv, an operation in which the passengers were all saved and a few Israeli soldiers were slightly wounded, including Netanyahu who injured his hand by friendly fire; two of the three members of Black September were killed and the other was captured along with the Arab women with them
  • So terrorist actions reinforced his view, according to Ari Shavit, that the world was out to get the Jews and, in the bottom line, only Jews could be relied upon to protect themselves from the terrible demonic forces that faced Jews
  • When Israel did not occupy East Jerusalem, did not occupy the West Bank, did not occupy the Golan Heights, did not occupy Gaza, did not occupy Sinai, Arab states amassed to attack Israel with thousands of tanks and a quarter million soldiers; Israel proved its mettle by defeating them all, including the renowned Jordanian forces after the Jordanian king ignored Israel’s plea to stay out of the war
  • Palestinian leaders had promised to slaughter the Jews, to wipe them out, but they did not succeed.

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic claimed The Six Day War set in motion a lot of what we are dealing with today. Is that thesis, so common in intellectual circles, accurate, or is the right wing view a better descriptor since the war had been continuous ever since Jews began to return to their ancient land? Certainly, the humanitarian card once more came to the fore, the so-called million homeless and displaced Palestinian refugees, as if they had no national home to which they could go and where they could be protected. For revisionists, there was no parallel with the Jews. Just one loss in a war would mean the loss of any homeland and the prospect of Jews en masse wiped out and not just turned into refugees. But the documentary ignored entirely this perspective and instead insisted that it was the occupation of Palestinian lands that ignited decades of conflict as if there had been no conflict heretofore.

As Dore Gold, another Netanyahu advisor, opined, The Six Day War proved that Israelis had always to be alert, always would need good intelligence, and both a readiness and an ability to respond quickly with military force when threatened. That version of history had been instilled in Bibi since he was born and he skipped his high school graduation in the U.S. to return to Israel and, if possible, fight the Arabs in he Six Day War. The war ended too quickly for him to do anything but dig trenches. But he was present at that crucial turning point in Israeli history.

His views were further reinforced when Israel was attacked in 1973 and then again when his older brother, Jonathan (Joni), who commanded the elite IDF unit, Sayeret Matkal that freed the civilians in Entebbe, was himself killed and became one of the mythical figures of Israeli history. David Remnick of The New Yorker insisted that there is no question that this event imprinted in Bibi even more deeply his sense of mission and purpose. After graduating from MIT, Bibi reinvented himself on the American media as an expert on terrorism. A PLO state would mean more war, more violence in the Middle East. And Bibi in the eighties became an official spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Washington. Marvin Kalb of NBC News insisted that this was critical to contemporary politics, mastering the media and selling your country and its narrative to the world, especially in Ronald Reagan’s America where Bibi’s portrait of Good against Evil had a very receptive audience.

At age 34, Benjamin Netanyahu was appointed as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, a position that had been so important in Israeli history since Abba Eban held the position in the birthing days of the young state. The story he sold was that the Security Council condoned Palestinian violence against Israel while condemning Israeli efforts to take counter-measures. In 1988, Bibi resigned to return to Israel and build his right wing political base. What was omitted from the documentary was the historical record of a revisionist Israeli politician, namely Menachem Begin, giving Sinai back to the Egyptians and signing a peace agreement with Egypt. What was also ignored was the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement.

Then the Clinton years, the nineties, when Good versus Evil was no longer fashionable and the push for peace between Israel and Palestinians was now at the front of the American agenda.  After a long protracted and fumbling path, Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat had finally entered into direct negotiations. Dennis Ross, an American Middle East envoy to the Middle East from 1993-2001, witnessed it all and was representative in regarding these negotiations as a historic breakthrough because, for the first time, both sides declared that they were prepared to recognize the other. Was Israel unprepared to recognize Arab control over the West Bank and Gaza before 1967? Oslo was regarded as historic because Palestinians were now negotiating for themselves, but many Israelis suspected that the PLO was not really prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that this was all a diversion to reinforce the Palestinian cause.

President Bill Clinton presided in the White House as Arafat and Rabin not only signed the Oslo Accords, the blueprint for arriving at a final peace agreement, but shook hands in a historic symbolic moment that became an iconic image. Saeb Erekat, the Chief Palestinian peace negotiator, asked in the documentary the crucial question. Would the handshake lead to a shift in cultural views on both sides, to shift to a belief that peace is possible, to shift to a position of live and let live?

While the world, as Martin Indyk, U.S. Ambassador to Israel 1995-1997 opined, celebrated that historic handshake on the White House lawn, angry protests were taking place all across Israel. Netanyahu was building a coalition of the religious and the political right strongly opposed to the Oslo Agreement. According to Marvin Kalb (The Road to War), Netanyahu did not believe in the possibility of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians. As he would later treat the Iran Accord, Netanyahu saw the Oslo Accords as marking a point of peril for Israel, reinforcing his belief that such an agreement could never and would never work. The extreme vitriol, the incitement, led directly to Rabin’s assassination before the elections. “In blood and fire we will expel Rabin.” Netanyahu never tried to dampen the fiery storms and deep seated fears and hatreds on the right. The ground was ready for a Yigal Amir to assassinate Prime Minister Yitchak Rabin.

Bill Clinton said it all. Wearing a kippa and addressing the Israeli public, he said, “Your Prime Minister was a martyr for peace but he was a victim of hate.” If hatred is not combated it grows within oneself as a cancer. Just as Netanyahu would do later in Obama’s second run for office, Clinton went overboard in trying to influence the Israeli election. Netanyahu was by then trailing badly in the polls. Then Hamas assured his victory by blowing up the No. 18 bus in Jerusalem. So, as Ari Shavit said, Rabin’s great heroic act led to a new wave of terror and people dying in the streets of Israel. Over nine days, four suicide bombers, 59 dead, hundreds injured. Hamas had effectively sabotaged Oslo and ensued Netanyahu’s election. “This peace is killing us.” The promise of security had worked, even though the coalition on the right had only the slimmest of majorities.

But Clinton and Netanyahu were doomed to clash. The politics of hope and the politics of fear are very incompatible bedfellows. Oslo was Clinton’s legacy. Oslo was Netanyahu’s nightmare. After lecturing Clinton on the Middle East, Netanyahu bowed to American pressure, at least a little, and agreed to meet with Arafat. He then pulled Israeli troops out of Hebron. Instead of the direct confrontation he later would use against Obama, Bibi seemed determined to slow walk peace to death with his maddening manoeuvres, though, in the end, Arafat would do the job for him. In the meanwhile, an unholy alliance between the left and the right in Israel brought down Prime Minister Netanyahu. The lesson Netanyahu learned: whatever else you do, keep your base intact and do not compromise to satisfy the American president one iota lest your supporters be unforgiving and desert you.

Ehud Barak won the election; Netanyahu suffered an overwhelming defeat. Clinton now gambled all to try to forge a final peace deal. Barak made an offer even dedicated peaceniks thought far reaching. Arafat refused to buy in even though Barak had agreed to cede East Jerusalem. Another intifada broke out. The left in Israel on the side of peace were fundamentally undercut. Most Israelis simply gave up on any belief in peace.

The same thing happened on the Palestinian side. Frustration, disappointment, anger – everything fed the extremists on both sides as the middle wilted away. Diana Buttu, a Palestinian negotiator, however, never blamed Arafat for refusing the deal. There was just no deal to be made even for the red lines on each side. The peace process had proved bankrupt. Netanyahu seemed vindicated once again.

Elliott Abrams (with the American National Security Council 2001-2009) was dead right that in Israel the despair about peace, the distrust of the Palestinians, had now spread to the middle-roaders and to some degree even into the peace camp. On the other hand, terror spread to America itself as the twin towers in New York came crashing down as a result of two hijacked planes flown into them by terrorists on 11 September 2001. Bush was then the president as good was then seen as the enemy of evil once again. By 2008, Netanyahu was re-elected as Prime Minister.

Obama was also re-elected and initiated his policy of opening the U.S. to the Muslims of the world based on mutual interest and mutual respect. On his first day in office, he phoned Mahmoud Abbas. Later in his first television interview, he chose an Arab TV network. Obama had been trained as someone who could use words to bring peace to the streets of Chicago and he believed that the same capacities could bring peace to the Middle East.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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