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Bibi's American friends

Published June 18, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

During those tense few days after the Israeli elections last month, as
Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu nervously watched his vote count rise and fall, a well-dressed American named Stephen Friedman stayed constantly by the candidate's side, urging him not to lose heart. Hell, even if he lost, Friedman said, his showing in the election -- a few weeks before he lagged 20 points behind -- already constituted the greatest political comeback in Israeli history.

Friedman, a 50-year-old attorney from Philadelphia, serves as the lawyer for the Likud Party in the United States. He is one of
Netanyahu's oldest childhood pals and also part of whole new cast of American Jewish players that might be called the Friends of Bibi, or FOBB.

Like the celebrated inner circle surrounding Bill Clinton,
Netanyahu's American friends, a small fraternity of influential and
like-minded Jewish lawyers, businessmen, financiers and columnists, have been helping finance his ambitions and carrying Netanyahu's political water ever since he set his sights on the Israeli premiership in the early 1980s.

As a group, they tend to be wealthy, male, conservative and, like
Netanyahu himself, extremely guarded about talking to outsiders -- especially journalists. But their reticence belies a fierce personal loyalty to Netanyahu, an allegiance based on their attraction to the man himself, his political ideas, and a shared view of Israel's precarious place among nations.

With the exception of New York Times columnists William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal, who have long written warmly about him, Netanyahu's American backers labored behind the scenes, quietly arranging introductions for him with various public and private American power brokers and helping raise the millions of dollars that enabled him to put the Likud party's financial house in order. Now that Netanyahu is in power, he is likely to call on some of them to marshal political support and continued investment in Israel in the days ahead.

FOBB can be divided into two distinct categories: his small inner circle of close male pals, some of whom date back to his high school days outside Philadelphia in the 1960s, and the somewhat larger second string of associates who met and bonded with Bibi while he served as Israel's deputy ambassador to Washington and ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s. Even then, while others tended to dismiss Netanyahu as a political lightweight, his political ambitions were obvious. "By 1982, it was very clear to me and maybe to his father, but no one else, that he was someday going to be prime minister of Israel," said Friedman. "There was absolutely no doubt in his mind."

In 1984, Friedman signed on as the Likud's lawyer in the United States, overseeing the party's fundraising activities. As Netanyahu took to the airwaves with punchy sound bites to counter international criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied territories and elsewhere, Friedman arranged meetings with government officials, businessmen
and financiers where Netanyahu could explain his government's policies at greater length.

One of those Netanyahu met at this time and brought into his inner circle was Merv Adelson, ex-husband of TV journalist Barbara Walters and former head of Lorimar studios. The two became extremely close, with Bibi attending Adelson's remarriage in 1992. They went on family vacations together in the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat, where Netanyahu had access to a wealthy friend's yacht, and Aspen, where Adelson has a ranch. "I like him because he's incredibly smart, and he's a man's man," Adelson said.

Adelson became Netanyahu's Hollywood connection. In 1991, he convinced Netanyahu, then deputy foreign minister, to attend a dinner party at the Holmby Hills home of Barbra Streisand. Some of the guests, like Streisand, were outspoken supporters of Peace Now, a bête noire of the hawkish Netanyahu. Streisand and other Hollywood liberals in the room took Netanyahu to task, but by all accounts Netanyahu acquitted himself well, explaining his positions and removing the rancor from the room.

"I don't know how many minds Bibi changed, but he certainly impressed everyone," Adelson said. "I know for a fact he greatly impressed Barbra." He added quickly: "His point view, I'm talking about." Apparently so. The next year, Streisand, who is also close to Adelson, failed to give any money to Peace Now, the first time she had missed a contribution since 1988.

Another member of Netanyahu's inner circle is Ronald Lauder, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria and wealthy international businessman. The two met at one of the New York gatherings that Friedman had arranged and quickly discovered they shared hardline views about Israeli policy and the need for the Jewish state to privatize its economy. Their friendship is based on "the ambassador's very keen interest that the state of Israel survives," said Lauder's spokesman, Alan Roth.

Lauder, 50, has hosted a number of gatherings at his Manhattan apartment, where he introduced Netanyahu to State Department officials, members of Congress, wealthy investors and financiers. Lauder, who has extensive investments in Eastern Europe and chairs the international branch of his family's Este Lauder cosmetics business, is also chairman and main financial backer of the Shalem Center, a conservative think tank in Jerusalem with close ties to Netanyahu.

Lauder also reportedly arranged for hardball Republican political
consultant Arthur Finkelstein to handle Netanyahu's political ads in the recent campaign. It was Finkelstein who created the commercial that contended -- unfairly, many critics said -- that then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres would divide Jerusalem and return the Golan Heights to Syria without concessions.

Netanyahu's outer circle of friends includes lawyers, financiers and a number of right wing Jewish activists. The names that most frequently crop up are Jay Zises and Henry Kravis, both influential New York investors; Murad Zamir, a wealthy New York diamond dealer; Sam Domb, a New York Likud activist, and Steven Wynn, the 54-year-old chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Mirage Resorts, the Las Vegas-based gambling corporation.

With the exception of Zises, all declined to be interviewed about their
friendships with the new Israeli prime minister. Zises reluctantly described his as "a close personal relation in which we go to movies together, we talk about current events and politics, books, philosophical views toward life, Jewish history, and we like to do all that over good food."

Netanyahu is a familiar face on Capitol Hill, where he enjoys relations with some Republican lawmakers, as well as Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York and Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. But he is viewed warily at the State Department, from which former Secretary of State James Baker banned him in 1991 after he accused the United States of policies towards Israel "based on distortion and lies."

With fences to mend and a nervous Clinton administration to mollify, Netanyahu will have his hands full when he visits the United States later this summer. His old American friends hope to see him, but they're already preparing themselves for a new kind of relationship. "Anybody who is his friend has to understand that he's now the prime minister," said Adelson, "and that's a different kettle of fish."

Jonathan Broder is the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report.

Quote of the day

Off with their heads!

"It simply makes no difference what information we furnish you: the Special Committee majority has adopted the procedural style of the Queen of Hearts in 'Alice in Wonderland': 'Sentence first, evidence afterwards!'"

-- David E. Kendall, lawyer for First Lady Hillary Clinton, who filed a two-page affidavit with the Senate Whitewater Committee on Monday, again denying knowledge of how long-sought billing records came to be discovered in theWhite House.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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