Bibi And Barack: Scenes From A Failed MarriageAmir Tibon & Tal Shalev
Benjamin Netanyahu was waiting in a small, drab office in the administrative area of Ronald Reagan National Airport. It was March 2007, and he was about to fly back to Israel from Washington. But before he left, he wanted to feel out a promising, young senator who was planning to run for president. When Barack Obama received the request for a meeting, he wasn't sure how to respond. "Why should I meet this guy?" one of his aides remembers Obama asking.
Netanyahu was the leader of the Israeli opposition back then, not the prime minister, and in the elections that were held a year earlier, he had led the Likud Party to its worst result in decades. It would have been easy enough for Obama to politely decline the invitation. But his policy advisers convinced him to accept. "When you're president," one of them explained, "there's a good chance you'll eventually have to work with him."
As soon as Obama entered the room, a Netanyahu aide felt he was in the presence of someone special. "His movements were sharp, his pace like that of a panther," the aide later recalled. Obama's staff wanted to focus the 30-minute meeting on Iran. They sensed that—unlike the Palestinian issue—this was something Netanyahu and Obama could actually agree on. Netanyahu did most of the talking, explaining that Iran's nuclear program was the world’s greatest danger to peace. Obama didn't disagree. He let Netanyahu know how seriously he took Israel’s security and mentioned the sanctions legislation against Iran that he was helping to push through the Senate.
Netanyahu was impressed. "I think this guy is going to beat Hillary,” he told his advisers that day. “It was a very good meeting,” his team reported to the Israeli embassy.
With his closest aides, however, Netanyahu did raise one concern. He noticed that Obama's reasons for opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions had more to do with the danger of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East than with Iran's support for terrorism or the unpredictability of the ayatollahs. Over his long career, Netanyahu had developed a sensitive ear for the words of American politicians. Obama, he thought, sounded more like a political science professor than a senator. It wasn't necessarily bad—just different.
Their next meeting came in July 2008. Obama was now the Democratic nominee for president, and he arrived in Israel as part of a ten-day world tour. His 36 hours in the country would be crucial. Opponents were already portraying him as a threat based on his middle name, Muslim father and connections to people who were thought to be pro-Palestinian. Obama wanted to use the visit to affirm his support for the Jewish state.
This time, Obama had no doubts about the importance of meeting Netanyahu, whom he was now calling by his famous nickname, Bibi. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was on the verge of collapse, and Netanyahu was the leading candidate to replace him. In fact, Obama noticed that Netanyahu's advisers were already referring to him as "the prime minister." Both sides still describe the conversation at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem as a success.
Four months later, when Obama won the election, Netanyahu bragged to journalists and confidantes that he had predicted this victory all the way back in March 2007. In some retellings, Netanyahu would claim that after that first airport meeting, he told his wife Sara: "I just met a man who is going to be president of the United States."
Throughout his entire political career, Netanyahu has presented himself to the Israeli electorate as "Mr. America"—the politician most knowledgeable about Israel's greatest ally. He speaks often of spending his high school years in a Philadelphia suburb (his father taught at a nearby university), studying at M.I.T, working for the Boston Consulting Group and serving at the Israeli embassy in Washington and as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations in New York. “Bibi thinks nobody in Israel understands America better than he does," says a former Israeli minister who worked for Netanyahu. "In cabinet discussions, whenever someone in the room raises the question of how the Americans would act, Bibi always says, 'Leave the Americans to me.'"
So in the fall of 2008, when a journalist asked Netanyahu if he anticipated any trouble working with the new U.S. president, he brushed it off. "I have no doubt we'll get along very well," Netanyahu said, "Both of us are graduates of elite Boston universities."
Seven years later, it's clear that his confidence was misplaced. After taking office in February 2009, Netanyahu has spoken to Obama more than any other world leader—and vice versa. Their countries have also reached new heights of security cooperation. But at the same time, the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been, by most accounts, the worst ever between an American president and an Israeli prime minister.
They have fought bitterly over the peace process, fundamentally disagreed over the Arab Spring and alienated each other over Iran. It’s hard to point to any major achievement of theirs—something like the Israeli-Arab peace accords produced by Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, or the Israeli disengagement from Gaza orchestrated by George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon.
Netanyahu has said that he and Obama are "like a married couple"— the implication being that they may not love each other, but that they’re stuck together in the same mutual endeavor. Over the past year, however, we have spoken to nearly 50 former and current officials in Israel and the United States, and their interpretations are far less charitable. They speak not only of a relationship that has soured irreparably, due to a string of miscalculations on both sides—but also of lasting damage to the Israeli-U.S. alliance.
When Obama entered the Oval Office, he had one huge ambition for the Middle East in his first term: He wanted to establish a Palestinian state through a peace accord. He realized that Netanyahu's opposition to Palestinian statehood would be an obstacle. But since Netanyahu had been forced into a coalition government with the left-leaning Labor Party, Obama had some reason for optimism. And when it came to Iran—Netanyahu’s other big issue—Obama intended to deal with the country’s nuclear plans through negotiation, although he kept the military option on the table, at least rhetorically.
Netanyahu, too, knew what he wanted as he prepared for his first White House meeting with the new president, set for May 18, 2009. He expected the U.S. to stay mum about Israel’s nuclear program and to take a strong position against Iran’s attempts to develop one of its own. But Netanyahu’s most urgent objective was to avoid a crisis on the Palestinian issue. During his election campaign, he had vowed never to demolish a single settlement. He feared that Obama would try to force him to break his promise.
The early signs were worrying for Netanyahu. On Obama’s first day in office, he called the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before he called Olmert, Netanyahu's predecessor. A former White House official says "the mindset at the White House was to create some distance with Israel, because of a perception that the Bush administration was so close to Israel, that it affected our standing in the Arab world, to whom we were trying to reach out.”
The next day, Obama appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as his "Special Envoy to the Middle East," which meant Mitchell would be handed the Israeli-Palestinian file. Mitchell was the author of a 2001 report that called on Israel to "freeze" all settlement-building. This proposal was anathema to the Israeli right-wing—and Netanyahu feared that it would become official administration policy.
The prime minister’s people felt better, however, after they talked about the details of the meeting with Obama's team. First encounters between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers are usually carefully choreographed, surprise-free events. Netanyahu knew that Obama would ask for new limitations on settlement building, but he was glad to hear that there had been no talk of a "complete settlement freeze."
When Netanyahu and a handful of aides finally arrived at the White House, one American official noticed that the prime minister was carefully examining the pictures, furniture and decorations, as if trying to figure out what had changed since his visits there as prime minister in the ‘90s. After a short ceremony, Obama and Netanyahu were left by themselves for a "four eyes" conversation. It was scheduled for an hour, but lasted close to two. One of the Israelis remembers Robert Gates, then Obama's secretary of defense and a veteran of such meetings, murmuring that he couldn’t remember the last time a private discussion between two leaders went on for so long.
The conversation started cordially, with both men complimenting each other on their political achievements. When they finally moved to substance, Obama said he wanted a complete settlement freeze, and he wanted it as soon as possible. Netanyahu was stunned—not just by the request, but also by the level of detail, with Obama talking about specific settlements and areas in the West Bank. “After the meeting, it took him some time to tell us that he was basically punched in the nose,” says a senior Netanyahu aide. “But anybody who knows him could immediately see it through the expression on his face." Netanyahu would later describe the moment to his advisers as an "ambush.”
Obama administration officials still defend their handling of the meeting. They claim that details from their preparation discussions—including Obama's positions regarding Iran—were being leaked to the Israeli press. (The Israelis deny this.) The White House feared that if the Israelis knew that Obama was going to request a settlement freeze, they would try to torpedo the idea before the meeting even occurred.
After the "four eyes" session, Obama and Netanyahu were joined by their advisers, and the conversation shifted to Iran. Netanyahu tried to convince Obama that a tough approach towards the ayatollahs was essential to good relations in the Middle East, including between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama replied that, in fact, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track could help the U.S. build a regional coalition involving Israel and some Arab countries to counter Iran.
At one point, Netanyahu's closest aide, Ron Dermer, a brash Floridian known as "Bibi's brain,” told Obama that he disagreed with something he had said about the Palestinians. According to a senior administration official who was in the room, Dermer's style was "on the edge of what you're allowed to do in such a setting," but hardly scandalous. However, after the meeting, the anecdote was leaked to the Israeli press, in a way that sounded much worse: In this telling, Dermer actually interrupted the president. The Americans thought it was leaked by a Netanyahu aide who was competing with Dermer for influence—and this further convinced Obama's staff that certain things just couldn’t be shared with the Israelis.
When the meeting was over, White House photographer Pete Souza caught a picture of Obama and all the American officials who had attended. "No one looks happy,” says one of them. "We all realized this was going to be quite a challenge.”
Both sides were starting to learn that bad relationships have their own momentum, that small problems quickly become big and motivations are too often perceived as malevolent.
Obama and Netanyahu talked on the phone three weeks after their White House meeting. Obama had just returned from a trip to the Middle East that didn’t include a stop in Israel. Netanyahu wasn’t pleased about that, nor did he enjoy Obama’s landmark speech in Cairo that called for a post-Bush reset with the Arab world, particularly his rhetoric against settlement building. Netanyahu was also unhappy that the White House had been unwilling to show him sections of the speech that had to do with Israel in advance, despite persistent requests.
The phone conversation was long, and at some point, Obama leaned back in his chair and kicked his feet up on the desk. Later that day, a picture of Obama in that position was attached to a White House press release about the call. In the Israeli media, this was interpreted as a major sign of disrespect. The left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz wrote that "as an enthusiast of Muslim culture, Obama surely knows there is no greater insult in the Middle East than pointing the soles of one's shoes at another person." Soon, American media outlets were taking similar shots.
"It's a classic example of how the media has a certain narrative—Obama and Netanyahu can't get along—and then everything has to fit that narrative," says one U.S. senior administration official. What actually happened, this official says, is that "the people handling media and photography thought the president was looking young and cool or whatever, and hurried to put it out without consulting with policy people. The stuff that was written later, as if this was meant to humiliate Bibi, was just total bullshit.”
Nevertheless, the "shoe controversy" helped solidify a narrative that was already forming within Israel: that Obama cared more about improving U.S. ties with the Arab world than strengthening relations with Israel. The administration knew it had to do something. In July, the White House decided to schedule interviews for Obama with Israeli journalists. But it took almost a year before the first interview actually went ahead.
By late 2009, administration officials began questioning whether Netanyahu, or people near him, were working to tarnish Obama's image in Israel. One official who participated in those discussions notes that even if Netanyahu didn't initiate the negative coverage, he obviously found it helpful. A Likud minister says, "Most Israelis, even those who didn’t vote for Bibi, started thinking with time that he was actually standing up against an amateurish, or worse, a hostile president." The same minister adds, however, that "in the early stages of the relationship, the dynamic was very different than in later stages, when Bibi became more confident. In 2009, he was still afraid of Obama.”
And he had reason to be. When Netanyahu was ousted from the prime minister's office in 1999 after a single term, one of the main reasons was his troubled relationship with Bill Clinton. Clinton was very popular in Israel and found ways to signal to the public that he wanted Netanyahu replaced. It was a defining political trauma in Netanyahu’s life, and it prompted him to make at least some nominal overtures toward Obama. In mid-June he gave a speech in which he accepted the two-state solution for the first time in his career. (However, he issued tough conditions that the Palestinians immediately rejected). Five months later, he agreed to a settlement freeze, while insisting that it be limited to ten months and should exclude Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem beyond the 1967 borders.
Not all of Obama's aides were impressed. 1 This was especially true of the veterans of the Clinton administration, such as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who recalled what a nightmare it had been to work with Netanyahu back in the ‘90s. "You have to remember that Bill Clinton, a man who gets along with just about anybody, also had a terrible relationship with Bibi," says a former Democratic congressman. "Even back then, Bibi was accused of meddling in American politics and working with the Republicans against the president. One time, he came to Washington to meet Clinton, and before the meeting he went to see Jerry Falwell, who was leading a campaign claiming that Clinton was a drug dealer. What do you think people like Rahm thought about that?”
Emanuel’s advice on Israel carried a special weight in the White House, especially with Obama. His parents had emigrated from Israel, and he had many friends in the country. Emanuel’s formula for handling Bibi was very simple: apply a lot of pressure and leave no escape routes. Clinton, he explained, wasted months negotiating the smallest details with Bibi, and this White House didn’t have time for that.
Soon enough, Emanuel was being lambasted in the Israeli press for his tough stance toward Israel. One story reported that Netanyahu had called Emanuel and political adviser David Axelrod "self-hating Jews." The prime minister denies saying that, but one of his former senior advisers did describe Emanuel to us as "the kind of American Jew who thinks he knows better than us." 2
These attacks “spooked Rahm pretty hard,” according to a senior White House official. Eventually, he adopted a softer tone and also supported adding Dennis Ross, a peace process veteran known for his pro-Israeli tilt, to the White House's policy team.
On the other side, American officials were suspicious of Ron Dermer. Born into a political family in Miami Beach, Dermer immigrated to Israel at the age of 26. He quickly developed a relationship with Netanyahu that a former senior Israeli official describes as “father and son-like.”
Dermer rarely talks to Israeli journalists, but early on, senior U.S. officials thought that he was briefing American ones against them, an accusation that Israeli officials close to Dermer deem "completely false."
“Every bone in Dermer's body is Republican,” says the former senior Israeli official who worked closely with him for years. “He doesn't look at Obama objectively. But Netanyahu preferred his advice [on the U.S.] over that of anybody else. 'Ron was born in America', Bibi would say if someone tried to argue. 'He lives American politics.'"
During the bleak period of late 2009 and early 2010, there was one senior figure in the White House whom Netanyahu still felt comfortable with: Vice President Joe Biden. “I don't agree with a damn thing you say, Bibi, but I still love you," Biden once told Netanyahu. The two men had met back in the late ‘80s, when Netanyahu was at the United Nations. Biden didn’t have bad blood with Bibi from the Clinton years, nor was he part of what the Israelis considered "the radical group surrounding Obama," which included senior advisers like Denis McDonough, Ben Rhodes and Valerie Jarrett. Obama decided to send Biden to Israel in March 2010, four months after Netanyahu accepted the settlement freeze, hoping that a visit from an old friend might convince the prime minister to go even further.
For Netanyahu, this was an opportunity to show that he still had some pull at the White House. Before Biden's arrival, he even gave a speech declaring that the "time is ripe for peace." But a day after Biden landed, a municipal building committee in Jerusalem announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood located beyond the 1967 borders. This was a tremendous embarrassment for Biden, who was visiting a Holocaust museum when he got the news. It was the largest construction planned within a disputed part of Jerusalem in years, and the White House had clearly broadcast its opposition to developments like this in several previous, smaller cases.
When Biden’s motorcade arrived back at the King David Hotel, the officials accompanying him, including Ross and another Obama adviser, Dan Shapiro, asked the Israelis how they could have allowed this to happen during the visit. The Israelis protested they had no clue. The decision, they said, was made by low-level bureaucrats and hadn’t gone through the prime minister's office. As one of the Americans on the trip recalls, "It was clear they were horrified, but they couldn't immediately disavow it.”
Biden was supposed to join Netanyahu for dinner that night, but now he wasn't sure if he could go. A conference call was arranged between the White House, the State Department and Biden's hotel suite, where a group of American officials huddled around the phone. Everyone decided that Biden would attend, but only after the White House had issued a response to the building announcement. While the unusually long statement was being crafted, Netanyahu and his wife Sara waited at their official residence in Jerusalem. Israeli and American flags were placed all around the home, and a red carpet was laid out. But an hour after the designated start time, Biden was still sitting in his hotel room five minutes away. The Israeli media, following the drama minute-by-minute, could barely contain its excitement. Pretty soon, the Internet was filled with giddy headlines about Bibi's humiliation.
When Biden finally arrived, he was his normal, effusive self, telling jokes about the good old days when he was a senator and Bibi an up-and-coming diplomat. Of all the American officials on the trip, he was actually the least upset. Netanyahu apologized and promised to delay the building project. (It still hasn’t happened.)
Netanyahu was visibly upset with the local authorities for ruining the visit—but he was also angered by the Obama administration’s reaction. Even though the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood is technically outside the 1967 borders, everyone knew that it would likely remain a part of Israel under any future peace agreement. The fuss seemed overblown and cynical to him, especially since building in "real settlements,” as he put it, was still officially frozen.
Biden, according to administration officials, thought that Netanyahu's half-hearted apology was enough. But others in the White House weren’t satisfied, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was tasked with conveying the administration's anger. Four months earlier, when Netanyahu accepted the settlement freeze, Clinton had publicly flattered him for taking an “unprecedented" step for peace. At the time, the White House feared (correctly) that Netanyahu would use her comment to blame the Palestinians if the peace process later collapsed. This time, however, Clinton was just as mad as her colleagues.
Three days after the incident, she called Netanyahu at his weekend home in Caesarea, an affluent suburb north of Tel Aviv, and ripped into him. The call lasted 43 minutes. One Israeli official described it as "violent." Another called it "one of the most shocking moments of my career.”
Clinton named a number of immediate steps the administration wanted Netanyahu to take in the West Bank. "She kept saying, 'We expect this, we expect that' and it all had to start happening by Monday," recalls another Israeli official. Netanyahu barely spoke for long portions of the conversation. When it was over, one of his advisers asked him what they were going to do: Clinton's ultimatum was only three days away. "Wait and see," Netanyahu said. When Monday arrived, he proceeded as if the conversation had never happened.
Two weeks later, Netanyahu travelled to Washington to address the annual conference for AIPAC, the pro-Israeli lobbying group. He and Obama scheduled a meeting for the afternoon of March 22nd, mere hours after one of the most satisfying moments of Obama’s presidency—the signing of the Affordable Care Act.
Beforehand, Netanyahu met with Congressman Robert Wexler, a Jewish Democrat from Florida. Like other members of his party, Wexler was "losing sleep," he said, over the crisis between Netanyahu and Obama. He came to Bibi with some unconventional advice. "You need to understand that today is perhaps the greatest day a Democratic president has had in decades,” Wexler told the prime minister. “I suggest you send someone to Georgetown to get the finest bottle of kosher wine that you can find. And when you walk into the White House today, hand it as a gift to Obama and say, ‘Mr. President, I want to congratulate you. And from one politician to another, I'm dying to know—how'd you do it?’"
Netanyahu's defense minister, Ehud Barak, had sat down with Wexler earlier and thought the idea was brilliant. He recognized this was an opportunity to make amends after a year of constant fighting. But Netanyahu didn’t think the idea was serious. He wanted to talk with Obama about Iran, not about domestic American issues. "I don't care what you think about the health care bill itself," Wexler tried to explain, "but I'm sure Obama will appreciate the gesture.”
Netanyahu arrived at the White House empty-handed for a "private meeting"—no photo availability or statements, not even a welcoming ceremony. It was another sign of anger over the Biden incident. Obama went through the list of requests Clinton had made, which included the removal of roadblocks in the West Bank, the construction of a highway that would connect large Palestinian cities and some economic initiatives. Netanyahu wanted to know what the Palestinians, or the administration, would provide in return.
Obama couldn’t believe it. Instead of smoking a cigar with his health care team, here he was haggling with Bibi over the width of the road to Rawabi. The whole thing felt like some kind of cruel joke. "This was the most important day of his presidency, domestic policy-wise,” says a White House official. “The fact that he even met with Bibi is remarkable.”
After more than an hour, Obama tried to end the meeting, but Netanyahu asked for more time to consult with his staff over the American requests. "I'm still around," the president replied. "Let me know if you make any decisions."
The Israeli entourage moved to the Roosevelt Room, where they were served celery sticks and crackers. After almost an hour, they said they were ready to see the president again. Obama returned, but no significant progress was made.
Netanyahu’s associates reject the notion that a friendly gesture to Obama would have changed the outcome. "This is complete nonsense," says Ya'akov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser. "Let's say that Netanyahu and Obama became the best of friends. At the end of the day, their policies and views would remain very different. Their fundamental disagreements over Iran and the peace process wouldn't have been settled over a glass of wine.
Two months after the meeting, the Obama administration supported an international resolution that, among other things, called on Israel to disclose details about its nuclear arsenal, breaking with past American-Israeli understandings. Israeli officials described the decision as a "betrayal." Obama was now seen by many Israelis as targeting not just some disputed settlements, but Israel's most strategic asset. For Netanyahu, this reinforced the feeling that the president didn’t fully comprehend how much danger Israel was facing. Netanyahu believed that there were other people in Washington who did, however. He would soon have an opportunity to enlist them in his cause.
Several days after the 2010 midterm elections, Netanyahu met Eric Cantor, the new majority leader, at the Loews Regency on Park Avenue, one of Bibi’s favorite hotels. The Republicans now controlled the House, and Obama was looking weak and defeated. When Netanyahu and Cantor discussed what the shift in power in Washington would mean for the Israeli-American relationship, Cantor didn’t hold back. "The new Republican majority will serve as a check on the administration,” he informed Netanyahu—a highly unusual commitment for an elected official to make to the leader of a foreign country.
Over the next months, as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, Netanyahu felt he needed the support. He thought that Obama's handling of the events was populist and irresponsible, especially the decision to push out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He also couldn’t understand why the administration was still pressuring him on the peace process—the turmoil in the region, he argued, made it too dangerous for Israel to make further concessions.
Eager to help, the Republican leadership invited Netanyahu to speak before Congress in late May. Shortly afterwards, word came that Obama would give a speech of his own—also dedicated to the situation in the Middle East, and five days before Netanyahu’s. Even though administration officials say the date was selected at random, one of them now admits that "our timing wasn't great."
Obama's speech included only a few paragraphs about Israel and laid out his parameters for a peace agreement. When discussing the future border, Obama said it would be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps—a position very similar to those staked out by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during their presidencies. Administration officials said that the speech was good for Israel on a host of other important issues and that Netanyahu could have easily presented it as a victory.
Netanyahu chose another strategy. The day after Obama’s speech, the prime minister arrived at the White House for a meeting. It began with a private discussion, which aides from both sides describe as polite and positive. Netanyahu told Obama he didn’t think the 1967 lines—the borders that existed before Israel occupied the West Bank—should be the basis for a future partition of the land and re-emphasized how precarious Israel’s security was. He also complained that the administration was only criticizing Israel for the stalled peace process, giving a "free pass" to the Palestinians. Obama didn't agree, but, according to one official, he appreciated that Netanyahu was making his points respectfully and in private.
Once the meeting finished, the White House communications team opened the Oval Office up to the press. Dozens of journalists filled the room, while aides fiddled with their phones in the back. After a short statement by Obama, it was Netanyahu's turn to speak. For the next seven minutes, he expounded on why his country could never go back to the 1967 lines. To emphasize his point, Netanyahu started listing basic historical and geographical facts about Israel. What was supposed to be a routine joint statement now looked like the gray-haired Netanyahu giving his younger counterpart a history lesson.
The Israeli and American officials in the room had completely different reactions. The Israelis felt relief. On his way to Washington, fuming over Obama's mention of the digits 1-9-6-7, Netanyahu had rehearsed an even more didactic version of the lecture, in which he would address Obama directly. ("You need to see,” “you need to understand.") His advisers managed to convince him that it would be wiser to reference historical facts without behaving as if Obama didn’t know them. They were glad to see that Netanyahu had taken their advice.
But Obama's staff was apoplectic. One Israeli official said it was impossible not to notice the angry looks and hear whispers of "how can he do this?" Obama himself seemed much less concerned. He waited patiently for the prime minister to finish, and then accompanied him to his limo in good spirits. Only when Obama returned to the Oval Office, says one American official, did his aides rile him up, although he still wasn’t as angered as some. One official described the feeling in the White House at the time in two words: "Fuck Bibi.”
When Netanyahu’s people received angry phone calls from Obama's staff, they saw it as yet another case of manufactured outrage. According to a senior White House official, the Israelis proposed a number of ideas to defuse the tension. Perhaps Netanyahu and Obama could be photographed watching football together. Or maybe the president could cross the street to Blair House (America's official residence for visiting foreign leaders) so that he and Netanyahu could be filmed saying only nice things to each other. “Either [the Blair House suggestion] was completely disingenuous, or it betrays such a level of disregard for the office of the presidency of the United States,” says an aide. “That’s one that I have carried with me for the last several years.”
Two days later, Obama tried to clarify his previous speech in front of the AIPAC conference. "Since my position has been misrepresented," he said, "let me reaffirm what '1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps' means. It means that the parties themselves will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967." The crowd loved it, and Netanyahu quickly released a statement congratulating the president.
Obama thought the speech was a major success: Who could have imagined that the entire AIPAC conference would get on its feet to support "1967 borders with land swaps"? But in some Israeli news outlets, another narrative emerged. Sources close to Netanyahu briefed the press corps that after Netanyahu scolded Obama in the Oval Office and addressed the U.S. Congress, the president was forced to soften his position. One of Netanyahu’s main political rivals recalls that when the prime minister retuned to Israel, “our internal polling showed his popularity skyrocketing."
When Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu visit Washington, they like to go out for walks in city parks, a luxury they rarely avail themselves of in Israel. Sometimes, they bring Bibi’s senior aides along for secretive policy discussions. Netanyahu refuses to have such conversations at the Blair House: There is always a chance that someone is listening.
Where Benjamin and Sara hold some of their most sensitive discussions in New York is less predictable, since it depends on where Sheldon Adelson happens to be. The casino magnate and his Israeli-born wife Miriam are Bibi’s most important supporters. Last year, after Bibi railed against Hamas from the U.N. podium, he joined the Adelsons at a fancy Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan. This year, when Sara entered the U.N. ahead of Bibi's speech, she went straight to Sheldon and Miriam's seats to exchange hugs, kisses and a few private words.
Netanyahu and Adelson’s friendship has been making headlines in Israel since at least 1991, when it was reported that the Adelsons held their wedding reception in the Knesset. After angry members demanded to know why the national parliament had been converted into a wedding venue, the Knesset chairman said he was approached by Benjamin Netanyahu, then the deputy foreign minister, who described the event as "a private evening honoring donors to Israel."
For the last eight years, the Adelsons' most prominent investment in Israel has been a daily free newspaper called "Israel Hayom" (Israel Today), which offers unwavering support to Netanyahu and his policies. Many Israelis call it the "Bibi-ton," a combination of Netanyahu's nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper. Even Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners have publicly referred to it as "Bibi's Pravda."
But when Adelson said before the 2012 election that he would spend “whatever it takes” to remove Obama from office, Netanyahu didn’t quite know what to do. On the one hand, he was still the elected leader of Israel, working with the president on sensitive issues like new sanctions against Iran. On the other hand, his most important backer was about to dole out $100 million in an effort to get rid of Obama, using Netanyahu’s frayed relationship with the president as one of his main justifications. Eventually, Bibi settled on a strategy: act as if Adelson's political spending in America had absolutely nothing to do with the mogul’s vociferous support for him in Israel.
According to a former White House official, the result was that "there were two kinds of discussions involving Bibi during 2012: discussions that were held in the National Security Council, among the policy pros, where the elections and Adelson were never mentioned. And discussions about politics, where for a long time Bibi wasn't mentioned, because we had so many other things to worry about, until at some point people started asking, ‘What the hell is Netanyahu doing? Is he working against us?’"
The White House’s suspicions grew serious in July 2012, when Mitt Romney (a former business associate of Bibi’s) visited Israel. After Romney spoke about Iran in a joint appearance with Netanyahu, the prime minister said, "I couldn't agree with you more, Mitt." It was bad enough that Bibi had provided the Romney campaign with a perfect sound bite, but then Adelson co-hosted an event for Romney at the King David Hotel that brought in around $1 million. Never before had such a high-profile fundraiser for an American presidential candidate taken place on Israeli soil in the middle of an election.
After Romney’s visit, a group of Democratic lawmakers met with Netanyahu. The Romney campaign is using you, they warned him. (A former White House official explains that Republicans “had a strategy to make the Jewish vote in Florida and other places competitive by framing Obama as the most anti-Israel president ever.") The lawmakers urged Netanyahu to do more to distance himself. Netanyahu expressed surprise to hear that even pro-Israeli Democrats were being targeted by groups on the right—a claim that not everyone in the room found convincing. "I don't think he was shocked at all," says one of the lawmakers. "I think he knew all about it."
Noah Pollak of the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel believes that Netanyahu was acting perfectly within bounds. "He hosted Romney in Israel just like he would have hosted Obama if he had decided to visit,” Pollak says. “Look, did he want to work with a president who is more supportive of Israel? Of course. Did he feel better about Romney than Obama on both a personal and an ideological level? Sure. But was he actively working to change the outcome of the election? I've been hearing that accusation for three years now, and haven’t seen a shred of actual evidence."
One senior American official echoed this statement: "I don't think anyone in Israel was stupid enough to believe that such a small country could influence the elections in America, where 300 million people vote on issues like jobs, health care and immigration.”
In the middle of all this, Israeli intelligence services caught signs of secret direct talks between the U.S. and Iran. Netanyahu was furious and publicly complained that Iran had gotten “closer and closer to nuclear bombs" under Obama. A senior Israeli official explains that the prime minister only said that to warn Obama against conceding too much to Iran, but to many spectators, it looked like another attempt to hurt the president in the elections. Netanyahu’s comment soon became the center of an anti-Obama ad campaign in Florida.
Still, if Netanyahu wasn’t actually meddling, why didn’t he make any real effort to dismiss the accusations? In the months leading up to the election, say two former aides to the prime minister, Ron Dermer repeatedly presented Netanyahu with polls showing that Obama was vulnerable. Multiple senior Israeli and American officials testify that Dermer's analysis—which Netanyahu highly appreciated—was that Obama would likely end up a one-term president. And on Election Day, one former staffer says, Netanyahu and Dermer "were in a complete euphoria. Even hours before the exit polls, Dermer was still explaining to people in the office why Romney was going to win." (Dermer denies this.)
Netanyahu, this staffer adds, doesn’t understand what motivates Hispanic voters in the United States. Henrique Cymerman, a Portuguese-born Israeli journalist, says that he once talked to Netanyahu about Israel's failure to connect to the Hispanic community, and Bibi replied: "I'm aware of this problem, and it's keeping me up at night.”
When the election results finally came in, Netanyahu and Dermer were genuinely taken aback. It wasn’t just that Obama had won, it was how. He beat Romney in almost every swing state and received almost 70 percent of the Jewish vote, despite the unprecedented effort to portray him as anti-Israel.
Suddenly, all those accusations about Netanyahu’s interference in the elections—accusations he had done so little to downplay—were causing real panic in the prime minister's office. The morning after the election, Netanyahu invited Shapiro, now the U.S. ambassador to Israel, over for hamburgers. Shapiro, an Illinois native who is fluent in Hebrew and very popular in Israel, had worked for Obama since 2007 and was close with both Netanyahu and Dermer. Netanyahu used to ask him to join him in first class on flights to the U.S., even if he and his aides were conducting sensitive discussions. Netanyahu believed that a positive meeting with the ambassador was a necessary first step in restoring his relationship with the White House.
When Shapiro arrived, Netanyahu asked his official videographers to film the two of them congratulating the president. On camera, Netanyahu found all the right words. He explained that "the security cooperation between our countries is rock-solid." And then there was Shapiro standing by Netanyahu’s side, saying little, smiling awkwardly. His White House colleagues called it "Dan's Hostage Video.”
Obama didn’t spend much time thinking about Netanyahu’s behavior during the campaign. Of his many headaches, this one was too small to register, according to a senior administration official. But what he did care about—and what frustrated him to no end—was his toxic reputation in Israel.
After all, Obama liked to think of himself as "the most Jewish president ever"—a phrase he used in meetings with Jewish-American leaders more than once. He also knew that military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries was at an all-time high. (Senior Israeli officials agreed.) And when Netanyahu really needed the president’s help—like in July 2011, when the Israeli embassy in Cairo was attacked by a violent mob, and the Egyptian generals refused to answer phone calls from Jerusalem—Obama had come through for him. In that instance, the president leaned on the Egyptians until they intervened, saving the lives of six Israeli security guards trapped inside the building.
So Obama didn’t understand why only 8 percent of Israelis, according to a poll taken before his re-election, believed his second term would be good for the Israeli-American alliance. Determined to repair the damage, he arranged for his first presidential visit to Israel shortly after his re-election.
When he arrived in March 2013, he "brought his ‘A’ game," says a senior aide. He made an effort to appear friendly with Netanyahu, who had also recently won another term. He took off his jacket as they visited an Iron Dome battery and made reference to "my friend Bibi" in their joint press availability. And he was especially charming to Netanyahu’s wife Sara. On Obama's second evening, at a state dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres, Barack pulled out Sara’s chair for her, flattered her looks and told her how impressed he was by her sons. Sara was so touched that the next morning she read press reports about the president’s compliments out loud to her staff. A close aide to Obama says that he hadn’t been briefed by his team to make a good impression with Sara: "It came from him."
Netanyahu wanted Obama to leave Israel with something more concrete than good feelings, though. So, before Obama's arrival, he asked some of his top officials to think of a serious gesture he could make towards the president during the visit—one that would teach him that he’d get better results by being nice than by imposing demands. A number of ideas related to the Palestinians were discussed, but Dermer suggested a better option.
In May 2010, a Turkish Islamist organization had tried to send a flotilla carrying food and construction materials into Gaza. When the ships were stopped by the Israeli Navy, activists violently attacked Israeli soldiers with knives and bats. The soldiers then pulled their guns, killing nine of the activists. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was suspending diplomatic ties with Israel until Netanyahu apologized and compensated the families.
The incident was a major headache for the Obama administration: The U.S. couldn’t afford to have two of its closest allies in the region estranged like this. So, in that pre-trip meeting, Dermer told Netanyahu that he should give Obama the opportunity to reconcile the crisis while he was in Israel. Netanyahu knew his supporters on the right would hate the idea, but he admitted that it was genius.
For the three days that Obama was touring the Holy Land, his top Middle East adviser, Phil Gordon, sat with Dermer in the prime minister’s office trying to organize a call between Bibi and Erdogan. They both agreed that it had to be scripted from start to finish, or else it wouldn't work. There was always a chance that once Netanyahu and Erdogan got on the phone Erdogan would call the Israeli soldiers terrorists, Netanyahu would accuse Turkey of supporting Hamas and an opportunity would turn into a disaster.
Obama was scheduled to leave on March 23, and by the time his motorcade reached the airport, it still wasn't clear whether the call would happen. The Israeli military placed a special trailer on the tarmac next to Air Force One for last-minute discussions. After about half an hour inside the trailer, Obama received a version of the script. He liked what he saw and handed it to Netanyahu. But the prime minister said that unless a number of changes were implemented, he’d rather not make the call.
Gordon contacted Turkish officials to go over Netanyahu's concerns, and, for a few minutes, the trailer was silent. Obama spoke first, asking Bibi if he wanted a cup of coffee while he was up getting one for himself. Just then, word came that Erdogan had accepted Netanyahu's fixes. The call went through, and Obama took off with a successful ending to a successful trip.
A few days later, opinion polls in Israel showed Obama crossing the 50 percent approval mark for the first time since 2009. Some Israeli pundits even suggested the two heads of state might become friends and usher in a brand-new era of cooperation. "His charm had melted the entire country,” one leading Israeli columnist declared.
By the spring of 2013, Obama and Netanyahu had spoken on the phone every few weeks for four years. They’d developed routines. "They usually start off with some niceties,” says a person who has sat in on many of the calls. “Obama asks Bibi how's Sara and the boys, and if they were able to take a vacation this season. Bibi says something positive, like thanking Obama for Iron Dome or for his support at some U.N. vote that just took place.
“They also share rants about their political difficulties. Leaders have something in common that no one else can understand—a lack of sleep and an overdose of problems. Obama says something about Congress, and Bibi answers, ‘Mr. President, you think Congress is tough? Wait until you see the Knesset!’"
But the familiarity only goes so far. Most of the time, Obama calls Netanyahu "Bibi," while Netanyahu sticks to "Mr. President.” A senior Netanyahu aide complained to us that the constant use of the nickname “reflects disrespect and arrogance"—a notion that Obama's side totally rejects.
Once Bibi and Mr. President proceed beyond small talk, things can get “heated and emotional,” according to a former senior Obama adviser. This is especially true when they're discussing Iran and the potential nuclear threat to Israel. During Obama’s second term, it seems as if they haven’t talked about much else.
The issue had created tensions for them from the very beginning, but the trouble intensified in June 2013, after Hassan Rouhani won Iran's presidential elections. The White House believed he was moderate—or at least as moderate as an Iranian leader could be—and saw an opening for a diplomatic agreement that would solve the Iranian nuclear threat without the use of force. “I want to send a letter to Rouhani and get this going again,” Obama told his aides. Netanyahu, on the other hand, strongly doubted that Rouhani's election would stop the ayatollahs' quest for the bomb. He insisted that Obama maintain crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy.
Three months later, Netanyahu returned to the White House. The meeting began with staff members in the room, but at one point, Obama asked for time alone with Netanyahu. He informed him of the secret American-Iranian nuclear negotiations channel that had been active for more than a year. "We knew that they knew," explains a former White House official, "but it was still important for the president to update the prime minister about it in person. Netanyahu's reaction was calm and mature. He didn't attack the negotiations. He just went over his list of 'red lines' for any nuclear agreement."
Netanyahu’s mood changed, however, when it became clear that an agreement would actually be struck. On November 8th, Secretary of State John Kerry stopped at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv on his way to nuclear talks in Geneva. Kerry and Netanyahu were meeting frequently during this period, as part of the secretary's attempt to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Usually, they held a short press availability before each talk, but this time, Kerry feared a public confrontation and asked that they keep the cameras away.
Netanyahu informed Kerry that, as far as he was concerned, the photo opportunity was still happening. "Wait right here,” he snapped at the secretary before going out in front of the cameras alone to slam the Obama administration for offering Iran "the deal of the century.” His face red from anger and his voice off-kilter, Netanyahu declared that “Israel is not obliged by this agreement” (no agreement had yet been signed) and that “Israel will do everything it needs to protect itself.”
When Netanyahu returned, Kerry asked if he wanted the discussion to be in the presence of senior aides or not. “I don’t care,” Bibi muttered. “Do whatever you want.” Kerry told everyone to leave the room. "It was the worst meeting between an Israeli leader and an American secretary of state I've seen in decades," said a veteran of such discussions.
Later that month, Obama and five other world leaders signed an interim nuclear deal with Iran that included lifting some important sanctions. Netanyahu was enraged, but he wasn’t without hope: The Republican majority in Congress, together with some skeptical Democrats, was determined to take the deal down. And luckily for Netanyahu, he had just appointed a new ambassador to Washington, someone savvy, someone who knew his way around Capitol Hill. His name was Ron Dermer.
In the White House, almost no one was happy about the appointment. When Obama and Netanyahu discussed it over the phone, the president said, "This is your prerogative, and we will work with him, but as far as we're concerned, he's on probation."
Dermer reported to Washington in December, only weeks after the interim deal was signed. From the beginning, he proved to be a different kind of ambassador. No one questioned his enthusiasm or intelligence, but according to a former senior Israeli minister, “people saw that he didn’t notice when he was crossing the line between being a foreign diplomat and being an active player in American politics.”
In March 2014, Dermer appeared at an event thrown by Adelson's Republican Jewish Coalition. Held over an entire weekend at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas, it was essentially an audition for the various Republican presidential contenders in search of the casino magnate's support. John Kasich was there, Chris Christie was there and Dermer thought there was nothing wrong with his being there: Israeli ambassadors have attended RJC events for decades. But his participation helped the White House paint him as a partisan Republican.
Administration officials also believed he was lobbying members of Congress against the nuclear talks, specifically by supporting legislation to place new sanctions on Iran—an act that would have scuttled the negotiations. "This is a completely false narrative," says an Israeli official close to Dermer, who insists that Dermer has good relations with people in both parties and that all he did was brief legislators on Israel’s security concerns.
According to a former senior White House aide, Obama warned Netanyahu in early 2015 that "this legislation has your ambassador's fingerprints all over it.” He also promised Bibi that he would veto the bill if it ever reached more than 60 votes in the Senate.
In March of that year, Dermer pulled off his greatest coup. Working behind the administration’s back with Speaker of the House John Boehner, he arranged for Netanyahu to make the case against a nuclear deal in front of a joint session of Congress. When some of his own senior defense officials warned that the speech would cause irreparable damage to his relationship with Obama, Netanyahu brushed them off. "Netanyahu once said during a cabinet discussion I participated in that 'what the president thinks about us is important, but it's more important what the young soldier at the entrance to the White House thinks about us,’” explains another former Israeli minister. “He believed he could beat Obama through American public opinion.”
But the tactic backfired. In fact, all the things that Netanyahu saw as helpful to his cause were used against him. The speech before Congress may have looked like a sign of strength to Netanyahu’s supporters, but it allowed the Obama administration to portray his opposition to the nuclear deal as politically motivated—part of a ploy to make Bibi look tough in advance of Israel’s upcoming elections. Netanyahu’s opponents also recirculated an old video of him testifying before Congress in support of the Iraq War. Back in 2003, Bibi had used his testimony to show the Israeli public how much influence he had in Washington. Now, his appearance seemed to prove Obama's point that the opponents of the Iran deal were "the same people who got us into Iraq."
In early September, the Iran deal passed Congress, and the geopolitical dynamic in the Middle East was fundamentally reconfigured. For the first time in decades, Iran was no longer the most isolated country in the region. It was internationally recognized and powerful. Netanyahu's office tried to claim that he "never believed the deal could be stopped through Congress,” but even some of his allies believe he was convinced his speech would have more of an impact.
"Netanyahu comes from a home environment that admired power. His world is one of strong and weak, where everything is measured on a power scale," says a former Israeli minister who was close to him for decades. Obama's victory on the Iran deal was a personal humiliation for Netanyahu. Not only did he appear weak by losing the battle, but he also lost his partnership with the American president—this time for good.
When the two met at the White House earlier this week, both sides tried to pretend that things were copacetic. Netanyahu brought up the possibility of a two-state solution. Obama promised to boost security aid to Israel. But a U.S. official told us not to have any illusions: "The president and Bibi are never going to be friends. We're never going to get over Iran."
This year, Netanyahu won re-election for the third straight time, creating a rather awkward situation in the White House. There was “a big debate” over who would congratulate him, says an aide. “The president wasn’t going to. Nobody wanted to. So Kerry picked up his cell and called.”
A year from now, it will be Netanyahu who gets to congratulate the next American president. And while Israeli officials believe that any of the leading candidates would make a better partner than Obama, the relationship will never be an easy one. Hillary Clinton recently wrote in the Jewish press about her commitment to Israel’s security and promised to have Bibi over to the White House within her first month in office. But a Clinton White House will likely include many veterans of her husband’s administration, as well as Obama’s, and they’re not likely to forget their past dealings with Netanyahu.
Nor is it a given that Netanyahu would fare much better with a Republican president, as is widely assumed. After all, both Bush administrations were quite tough on Israel when it came to their policy on settlements, and in 1990, Secretary of State James Baker banned Netanyahu from entering the State Department after he publicly claimed the first President Bush's Middle East policy was "based on lies and distortions." A new Republican in the White House wouldn’t give Bibi’s government “carte blanche,” says Michael Koplow, the policy director at the Israel Policy Forum. A GOP president would still put pressure on Netanyahu, just “in a less public way than Obama did.”
No matter who the next president is, Netanyahu will have to deal with the fallout from the Obama years. Many Israelis are especially concerned that they have lost the once-ironclad support of the American Jewish community—that there are many people whose love for Israel may have diminished over Netanyahu’s term "Bibi stands up and says he is the leader of world Jewry, but he is not the pope,” a former Obama adviser told us. "He's just the guy who happens to have enough votes to form a coalition government in Israel." Another Jewish leader speaks of a potentially “irreparable rift” between American Jews who blame the current tension on Obama and those who think it’s Netanyahu’s fault.
Then there is the question of whether Netanyahu’s fractious union with Obama has given America’s allies permission to distance themselves from Israel. Just this week, the European Union published new labeling guidelines that would inform consumers if products were made in Israeli settlements. Israeli officials believe that more restrictions and sanctions are possible—and that the deterioration of the American relationship is to blame.
If Netanyahu is still in office by 2018, he will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. He has hinted that he’d like ten more years in office, which isn’t implausible, given the state of the Israeli opposition. Netanyahu likes to say that “when I want something, I get it.” But the failure of the Obama years calls that theory into question. "The world used to be convinced that Israel had influence in the U.S.,” says a top Israeli official who has dealt with many American administrations. “Nobody thinks that way anymore.”