"I already saw fire in Netanyahu’s eyes": Behind the scenes with Bibi and Obama

The inside story from Israeli ambassador to the U.S. of one of the tensest moments in the U.S./Israeli relationship

Published July 19, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)

Excerpted from the book "ALLY: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide"

“We’re not sure that the peace process will be mentioned, but even if it is, the section will be very short,” senior White House advisors assured me on Wednesday, May 18, 2011, on the eve of Obama’s nationally televised address. Titled “U.S. Policy in Middle East and North Africa,” the text would furnish a vision of America’s future relations with a revolutionary  Middle East, an epic follow-up to the historic Cairo speech two years earlier. Israel and the Palestinians were simply not the focus, the advisors said.

I wanted to believe them. Mahmoud Abbas had just published an op-ed in The New York  Times announcing his intention to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally in the UN and then sue Israel in international courts for illegally occupying that state. The Palestinian leader who renounced violence now revealed that his opposition was largely tactical. Terrorism could not defeat Israel, only stain the Palestinians’ reputation  and divert global attention from settlements. But a policy designed to isolate, delegitimize, and sanction Israel could bring about its downfall. Lawfare, rather than warfare, became Abbas’s weapon of choice.

Yet, in turning to the international  courts, Abbas not only threatened Israel, he violated long-standing Palestinian commitments to the United States. These obligated the Palestinian Authority to seek peace only through negotiations. On the eve of February’s Security Council vote on settlements, he rejected Obama’s offer to embrace the Palestinian position on borders and forced him to veto his own policy. Why, then, would the president now concede the 1967 lines and once again reward Palestinian ill will?

That question recurred to me as I viewed the speech on my office television. My invitation to the event, held at the State Department, had been lost in the embassy’s email—fortunately—for I, alone among the ambassadors present, could not have clapped. Instead, I watched as the president praised the bin Laden operation and pledged to support Middle East democracy, and then devoted a full quarter  of his remarks to the peace process. Obama reiterated his belief that the status quo was not sustainable, that the Palestinians living west of the Jordan  would eventually outnumber  the Jews, and that “technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself.” He called for the resumption of talks on security and territory as well as efforts to find a “fair and just” solution to the Jerusalem and refugee issues. But then, at last, came the long-dreaded sentence: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”

The Internet headlines instantly flashed: Obama endorses the ’67 borders. The rest of the speech, intended to be one of the most memorable of his term, was roundly ignored. The Palestinian Authority, joined by the Quartet, applauded the 1967 reference, and Republicans condemned it as “throwing Israel under the bus.” But the most vehement response came from Netanyahu.  Speaking about his scheduled meeting with Obama the following day, Netanyahu said that he would “expect” the president to reaffirm that Israel would never return to the

1967 lines, that Israeli forces would remain in the Jordan Valley, and that Palestinian refugees would not be resettled in Israel. “The Palestinians . . . must recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and any peace agreement with them must end all claims against Israel,” Netanyahu said expectantly. And I expected sparks.


I already saw fire in Netanyahu’s  eyes the following dawn after his plane landed at Washington’s Dulles Airport. He paused at the top of the stairs, glaring. In place of his usual wave and smile was a grim expression that barely disguised his fury. In the two years since my appointment, I had come to know that anger well—a monumental rage capable, it sounded, of cracking a telephone receiver. But I also gained a more intimate and nuanced perspective of Netanyahu.  He is one of the world’s most complex, seasoned, divisive, and hounded leaders, and perhaps its loneliest.

His résumé reads more glowingly than even the most sterling of the Obama  administration’s CVs. It includes Netanyahu’s service in Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s equivalent of the Delta Force. The chances of making it into the Unit, as it is popularly known, much less completing its agonizing training, are exceedingly limited. Netanyahu not only finished the course, he became an officer. Once, during a television interview in Israel, the producer introduced himself to me as another Unit veteran. “I can’t stand Bibi,” he said. “But he was not only an exceptional officer, he was a courageous one.” Participating in numerous operations  behind enemy lines, wounded  in action,  Netanyahu also fought in the Yom Kippur War and achieved the rank of captain.

Accepted at Yale and studying at Harvard,  he graduated  from MIT with an honors BA in architecture and a master’s degree in management. He became a successful analyst at the Boston Consulting Group  and would remain, at heart,  an economist. For a solid hour once, I listened nearly openmouthed  as Netanyahu  and Bill Clinton theorized  about  the mechanisms of  markets.  Next,  Netanyahu  became a statesman—first an eloquent deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and then a media-savvy ambassador to the UN. Returning to Israel in 1988, he entered politics. He distinguished himself as a foreign minister and finance minister, twice headed the government, and was now closing in on Ben-Gurion’s record as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. All that,  plus Netanyahu was a published author, a superb orator in Hebrew and English, conversant in French, a serious reader, and, in his heyday, famous for his good looks. Who would not be impressed by that résumé, if not intimidated?

And yet respect and fear were far from the only emotions  the prime minister evoked. “Recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous”—were just some of the adjectives that, according to journalist  Jeffrey Goldberg,  senior White House officials attached to Netanyahu. In the left-leaning Israeli press, especially, vilifying him was close to a national  pastime. “He panics quickly in the face of every lurking shadow and every insinuated threat,” carped political columnist Ben Caspit. “He plays against himself and always ends in a tie.” For Netanyahu,  TV analyst Raviv Druker  observed, “it’s always the world against Netanyahu.”  Nahum  Barnea, Israel’s equivalent of Tom Friedman, wrote most cuttingly, “He’s not so big that he can afford to be so small.”

But the real Tom Friedman was no less censorious. For him, Netanyahu was “annoying” and “disconnected from reality” and, most commonly, “arrogant.”  No less than their Israeli counterparts,  American commentators—almost all of them Jewish—were fiercely indisposed toward Netanyahu.  Joe Klein, of Time, decried him as “outrageous  . . . cynical and brazen.”  For The  New  Yorker’s David Remnick, Netanyahu was “smug and lacking diplomatic creativity,” a firebrand who posed a risk “to the future of his own country.” In The New  Republic, Leon Wieseltier described him as a “gray, muddling, reactive figure . . . a creature of the bunker.” When I suggested to Leon that his hatred of Bibi had become pathological, he merely shrugged and admitted, “Yes, I know, it’s pathological.”

The antagonism sparked by Netanyahu,  I gradually noticed, resembled that traditionally  triggered by the Jews. We were always the ultimate Other—communists  in the view of the capitalists and capitalists in communist eyes, nationalists for the cosmopolitans and, for jingoists, the International  Jew. So, too, was Netanyahu declaimed as “reckless” by White House sources and incapable of decision making by many Israelis. He was branded  intransigent  by The  New  York Times, yet Haaretz faulted him for never taking a stand. Washington insiders assailed him for being out of touch with America, and the Tel Aviv branja—the intellectual elite—snubbed him for being too American. The Israeli right lambasted him for spinelessness, the left for intractability, the Ultra-Orthodox for heresy, and the secular for pandering to rabbis. All agreed in labeling Netanyahu  disingenuous, imperious,  and  paralyzed  by  paranoia—qualities   not  uncommon among politicians.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu remained in office, virtually unopposed. In Israel’s often cutthroat political culture, that achievement would be remarkable enough, but was even more astounding in light of Israel’s precarious political system. Unlike the U.S. president’s four-year term, an Israeli prime minister’s can be ended at any time by a no-confidence vote. The commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces is the president, but the IDF’s commander is the Israeli government, which the prime minister has to persuade to act. “Your worst day in Washington is Bibi’s best day,” Ron Dermer periodically reminded me. In contrast to Obama’s cabinet, often described as a Lincoln-like “team of rivals,” Netanyahu’s contained multiple ministers actively seeking to unseat him.

For years, though, none succeeded. No other politician could engender the sense of security that Israelis, for all their grousing about Netanyahu, needed to feel at night when tucking in their children. The majority of Israelis still could not trust anybody else to manage a war, meet the Iranian nuclear threat, and prevent a Gaza-like Hamas state from arising in the West Bank. “One way or another,” one Israeli pundit told me, “every election for the past twenty years has been about Bibi.” And each time, he had won. Benjamin Netanyahu  might not always be loved—not by his people, not even by his own party—but neither could he be replaced.

This was the Netanyahu  I had come to know, a man of mighty contradictions. Less than a modern Jew, he reminded me of an ancient Hebrew, a biblical figure with biblical strengths, flaws, appetites, valor, and wrath,  scything his foes with rhetorical and political jawbones. Uncannily robust, he retained in his sixties the physical heft and endurance of a Sayeret Matkal captain, only rarely revealing the depths of his exhaustion.  Though  he tried to get five hours  of sleep each night—“Someone’s got to drive,” he said—Netanyahu rarely got more than four, and was frequently awakened by emergencies.

Pundits often tried to plumb the origins of Netanyahu’s outlook, especially the influence of his father, Benzion. A hard-line Zionist historian  who nevertheless spent many of his 102 years in the United States, Benzion chronicled the racist roots of anti-Semitism from antiquity through the Inquisition and the Holocaust. That gloomy view of Jewish fate—to be hated for who we are irrespective of how we hide it—darkened  the son’s worldview, analysts said. Though  Netanyahu dismissed such insights as “psychobabble,” the images of Masada, Auschwitz, and looming Jewish apocalypses permeated his speeches and even our private talks. “The world sees Israel as the most powerful Middle Eastern state,” he once told me, “but that could change overnight, rendering us very vulnerable.”

Another influence on his life was his brother,  Yoni, the dashing Sayeret Matkal commander who lost his life rescuing Jewish hostages hijacked by terrorists during the 1976 Entebbe Operation  in Uganda. Yoni, who would remain young, handsome,  and iconic, joined Benzion in setting another bar—the armchair therapists alleged—that Netanyahu  could never reach. But no one swayed the prime minister more than his wife, Sara, so the papers claimed. Politically outspoken, a working child psychologist and mother of two, she might be expected to serve as an inspiration  for Israelis, especially women. Instead, Sara supplied lurid headlines about her alleged mistreatment of staff members, her overspending, and undue influence on policy.

I never met Benzion or, of course, Yoni, though their photographs hung prominently in Netanyahu’s private office. By contrast,  I knew Sara, but our contact was limited to the times when she entered the room where her husband and I were mulling over a speech. She offered comments and usually seconded my efforts to make the text less militant. On another occasion, while she was visiting Washington and riding to her only meeting with Michelle Obama,  Sara’s limo stopped short and pitched her into the front seat, severely gashing her foot. But she refused medical attention  and refrained from mentioning the injury at the White House. When I asked her why, she explained that she wanted the conversation’s focus to be solely on family, not on her foot. She struck me as strong-willed, fiercely committed to her husband, and never to be crossed. More than those of his late father and brother, the photographs of Sara dominated the prime minister’s walls.

So did Churchill’s. Like that old-fashioned Englishman, I discerned, Netanyahu was not quite a man of his time. He hated political correctness—futilely, I tried to get him to say “humanity” rather than the “mankind”  that  feminists resented. He despised the word paradigm and shunned all computers and cellphones. Like Churchill, he believed in the power of language, disdained slang and most expletives, and adhered to the British Bulldog’s dictum that any good point should be hit repeatedly “with a pile driver—a tremendous whack.” And like Churchill warning the world of the looming Nazi threat, Netanyahu  viewed himself as a man with an historical mission. Destiny had tasked him with saving the Jewish people, irrespective of the personal price. “I spoke about the Iranian nuclear threat when it was fashionable and I spoke about it when it wasn’t fashionable,” he declared. “I speak about it now because when it comes to the survival of my country, it’s not only my right to speak, it’s my duty.”

Ever mindful of the opportunity  he gave me to achieve a lifelong dream, I liked Netanyahu,  but I never became his friend. Rendered suspicious by years of political treacheries, he appeared not to cultivate or even need friendships. Firgun was not his forte. And yet, I still empathized with his loneliness, a leader of a country that had little respect for rank and often less for those who wore it. A person, reputedly, of indulgences, he seemed to derive no joy from them, but rather ate and drank with a grim resolve and resignedly smoked his cigars. Except when watching the TV series Breaking Bad, Netanyahu  never seemed to relax. Rather, he presided over unremitting crises, domestic and foreign, that would break most normal men.

Which was why making him laugh could feel like an act of kindness. Whenever I told him an off-color joke or gave him a funny line for a speech, he kept repeating them and guffawing, sometimes for hours. And along with levity, I gave him loyalty. And honesty. In the face of that Old Testament temper, I offered advice he did not always relish hearing.

One of my recommendations  was to conciliate rather than confront Obama,  to roll with the president’s punches rather than try to outsock him. I believed that Israel needed to maintain the bipartisan support and widen the diplomatic leeway we might later need in war. And preserving the alliance remained my paramount  priority. Netanyahu, though, insisted that by giving in on peace issues, Israel would undercut its credibility on the most pressing threat of all: Iran. But in addition to his strategic thinking, my approach ran counter to Netanyahu’s personality—part  commando,  part  politico,  and thoroughly predatory.

That combination, perhaps, deterred me from telling Netanyahu the most difficult truth of all. Simply: that he had much in common with Obama. Both men were left-handed, both believed in the power of oratory  and that  they were the smartest men in the room.  Both were loners, adverse to hasty decision making and susceptible to a strong woman’s advice. And both saw themselves in transformative historical roles.

Their  similarities, perhaps as much as their differences, heightened the chances for friction between the president and Netanyahu,  I could have told him. But I did not. Rather, as the prime minister descended the stairs to the tarmac that early May 20 morning, I merely said, “Welcome to Washington, sir,” and extended my hand. This he gripped and pulled me toward  him. With his eyes still flaring, he recalled the cable I sent him months back predicting the president’s speech. “You called it right,” he whispered.

Excerpted from the book "ALLY: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide" by Michael B. Oren. Copyright © 2015 by Michael B. Oren. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

By Michael Oren

Michael B. Oren is an American-born Israeli historian and author, and was Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013. He has written two New York Times bestsellers—Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present and Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history and the National Jewish Book Award.

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