While some people may debate whether Barack Obama is the most anti-Israel president in history, no one denies the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had, at best, a dysfunctional relationship. Paradoxically, Bill Clinton is generally regarded as one of the most, if not the most pro-Israel president and yet he too had a contentious relationship with Netanyahu. Given the possibility of another Clinton in the White House who will have to work with Netanyahu, it is worth looking back at the brief era of Bill and Bibi.
When Netanyahu unexpectedly won the 1996 election over Shimon Peres, he began his relationship with Clinton at a disadvantage. Clinton had worked closely with Yitzhak Rabin and they became good friends, best reflected by his eulogy at Rabin’s funeral that he ended with the words, “Shalom chaver.”
Rabin had certainly been no pushover and, in his last speech before the Knesset prior to his assassination, he had specifically ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state. Still, Clinton felt that Rabin and Peres were committed to achieving peace with the Palestinians. Given that Netanyahu had been a harsh critic of the Oslo process, Rabin and Peres, Clinton did not expect him to be as receptive to the president’s determination to reach a final settlement. Consequently, Clinton (like Obama later) left no doubt as to who he preferred in the election between Peres and Netanyahu.
Clinton believed Netanyahu was unenthusiastic about the peace process. This view was reinforced during their first meeting when, in another incident reminiscent of his interactions with Obama, Netanyahu lectured the president on how to deal with the Arabs. In his book, Doomed to Succeed, Dennis Ross recalled that Clinton asked him after the meeting, “Who does he think the superpower is?”
Despite his opposition to Oslo during his election campaign, Netanyahu agreed to a redeployment of troops in Hebron. This was a great achievement for Clinton, as he convinced Netanyahu to concede territory, and to do so in the most sensitive Jewish city in the West Bank. Later, Clinton persuaded Netanyahu to do something else the Israeli leader pledged never to do – shake hands and negotiate directly with Yasser Arafat.
Clinton’s ability to nudge Netanyahu to make compromises was in part due to his understanding that embracing him would be more effective than threatening him. Thus, in stark contrast to Obama, Clinton eschewed public criticism of the prime minister. Clinton also went out of his way to satisfy Netanyahu’s concerns. On security, for example, Ross says Clinton offered to sign a formal defense treaty with Israel if he agreed to complete the redeployments they had negotiated. Also, unlike Obama, who is insensitive to Netanyahu’s political constraints, Clinton tried to help him by offering him carrots that would quiet his Likud critics. One notable example was Clinton’s agreement to go to Gaza to supervise the PLO’s vote to annul the articles of its charter that called for Israel’s destruction even though Peres had been satisfied that the PLO had already done this. Clinton performed this task and Netanyahu accepted it.
Last year, Netanyahu was pilloried for his decision to accept the invitation to speak before Congress and take his case against the nuclear deal Obama was negotiating with Iran directly to the American people. In 1998, Netanyahu planned a trip to Washington in an apparent attempt to confront the administration by going over Clinton’s head to argue that the president was endangering Israel’s security by pressuring him to make additional territorial concessions to the Palestinians. In a statement that sounds much like what was said before his 2015 trip to the United States, Netanyahu’s spokesman said the prime minister was not interested in a fight with the administration, but he planned to use the visit to explain his point of view.
Netanyahu had already angered Clinton by rejecting his invitation to attend a meeting designed to break the stalemate in the peace talks because the administration was bullying Israel to turn over 13 percent more territory to Arafat. Netanyahu offered a compromise of 9 percent, provided Arafat put an end to terrorism (as he had promised in 1993, but never fulfilled), and Israeli negotiators offered a variety of formulas for ultimately withdrawing from the remaining 4 percent. Nevertheless, Netanyahu was blamed for being intransigent, particularly by the State Department, whose spokesman warned that the administration’s patience was running thin.
In addition to witnessing her husband’s travails, Hillary Clinton had first-hand experience dealing with Netanyahu when she was Secretary of State. During her term, she was asked by the White House to read the riot act to the prime minster at least once and was nominally in charge of the disastrous policies the administration pursued in the Middle East.
As Secretary, Clinton was obligated to carry out Obama’s policies and the president reportedly did not seek her advice. If Hillary follows her husband’s approach toward Israel, she could also prove to be a great friend. Clinton and Netanyahu are familiar enough with each other that there should be few surprises; nevertheless, if the past is any guide, we should strap in and prepare for a bumpy ride.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.