Anybody But Bibi

The Inside Story of U.S. Meddling in Israel’s Elections

Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is headed for new elections. Obama will be tempted to try to bring him down. Not a good idea.

Pool photo by Andrew Harre

Israelis have been intervening in American politics for years. But do Americans intrude in Israeli politics?

You bet we do.

When John Kerry said this week that he doesn’t comment on the internal politics of other nations, he means it. But that’s not to say Washington doesn’t have its favorites or doesn’t try to influence the outcome.

With Israeli elections now scheduled for March 2015, there’s no doubt who the Obama administration is rooting for: Mr. or Ms. A.B.B.—Anybody But Bibi. But the president and secretary need to be very careful here. We don’t read Israeli politics very well; and we haven’t proven very effective in predicting, let alone orchestrating outcomes. The best advice to an administration that has proven anything but sure-footed in the Middle East, particularly in dealing with Israel, is to keep out of Israeli politics.

We say, of course, that we will work with any duly elected Israeli government. And so we shall. But having worked for Republican and Democratic administrations on the U.S.-Israeli relationship and peace process for a good many years, I can say with some authority that the commitment to work with any leadership does not mean we don’t play and pick favorites.

Those are the leaders aligned with what might be described in U.S. political terms as enlightened Democrats in Israel, who espouse pretty liberal, broadminded views on the peace process, as opposed to the Republicans in Israel who are more conservative and tough-minded.

In Washington, whether it’s an R or D administration, in fact, we want Israeli leaders like Rabin, Peres, and Barak who see the world more or less the way we do when it comes to the two-state peace process. We have a much harder time with those Israeli leaders—Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu—whose views on what to do about the Palestinians don’t naturally accord with ours. (Sharon was a special case. He and George W. Bush got along reasonably well because neither really cared about the peace process and both were governing in an age of terror.)

But sometimes those initial judgments about who’s naughty or nice end up confounding.

Because U.S. administrations tend to divide the Israeli political spectrum into two parts—the good Israelis who share our views and the not so good ones who don’t—they’re not entirely sure what to do with the fact that Israeli prime ministers of all political stripes have continued Israeli settlement building on the West Bank and construction in parts of east Jerusalem that we’d like to see become the capital of a Palestinian state.

It’s an inconvenient but important reality to acknowledge that of the three U.S.-orchestrated breakthroughs in the Middle East peace process, two of them—the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the Madrid peace conference—came from hardline Likud prime ministers. The third—the three disengagement agreements following the 1973 war —came courtesy of a very tough Labor prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

But secretly rooting for the good Israelis and wishing them success is one thing. What about actually doing things that help the good ones succeed or alternatively weakening the Israelis we don’t want to see in power?

I can recall at least three occasions when Republican and Democratic administrations willfully picked Israeli favorites and tried to shape election outcomes.

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The first example didn’t occur in the immediate run-up to an election. But it certainly contributed, and purposely so, to the defeat of the tough Likud hardliner Yitzhak Shamir in 1992.

Relations between the first President Bush and Prime Minister Shamir never really clicked, primarily because of the settlements issue. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens warned Shamir on the eve of his first visit to Washington in 1989 that the Bushies would cut his balls off, and the tone of the relationship didn’t get much better after that. The president came to believe Shamir misled him on the settlement issue, or flat-out lied to him.

Ultimately the question focused on Israel’s request for billions in housing loan guarantees to help absorb Russian Jews. In view of Israel’s continuation of constructing settlements and the timing of the upcoming Madrid peace conference, neither the president nor Secretary of State James Baker would agree to put up American credit. With congressional consent, the issue was postponed until early 1992 and even then the administration insisted on conditions that Shamir would never accept.

Baker’s intention was clear: He would not give Shamir the loan guarantees if it would help him politically in what was to become an election battle that year with Rabin. (It was no coincidence that Baker’s memoir was titled The Politics of Diplomacy.) Two months after Rabin’s victory, the new prime minister signed an agreement with President Bush for the loan guarantees. Did U.S. actions help defeat Shamir? You bet they did. The perception that Shamir had mismanaged Israel’s ties with the U.S. hurt him badly. And the Bush administration helped orchestrate that.

The second intervention was much more blatant and actually occurred in the middle of an election campaign. Like Bush 41 and Shamir, Bill Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu were not exactly soul mates. In June 1996, after their first meeting, Clinton, frustrated by Bibi’s brashness, exploded: “Who’s the fucking superpower here?”

You can see why relations were tense. For the preceding two months, Clinton had done everything he could to tip the election to Shimon Peres, a caretaker prime minister, in the wake of Rabin’s assassination by an Israeli radical in November 1995.

Clinton had persuaded Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to convene a Summit of the Peacemakers in Egypt in an effort to save the peace process and Peres, too, after a series of Hamas terror attacks. When Peres visited Washington, Clinton went out of his way to praise Peres’s leadership and insisted on referring to the upcoming election in a reference that all but said “vote for Peres if you’re serious about peace.” There was even a Peres-inspired suggestion, weeks before the May election, that the U.S. move its embassy to Jerusalem. The idea never made it to Clinton. But if it had, Clinton might very well have gone for it to help Peres win the election. And, still, Netanyahu won.

Clinton, who had an extraordinarily close relationship with Rabin (he wrote in his memoirs that he loved Rabin as he had loved no man), was fervently committed to Israel and those Israelis he believed were willing to take real risks for peace. Indeed in what was a true Hail Mary pass, in December 2000, a month before his term ran out, the president was prepared to fly to Israel to broker an agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, not least in order to help Barak defeat Ariel Sharon in elections scheduled for February 2001. But the deal foundered and Barak lost.

Now, as the clock ticks down on Israeli elections scheduled for March 2015, will the Obama administration play internal Israeli politics to try to tip the election against Netanyahu?

Obama’s relationship with Bibi is perhaps the most dysfunctional of any president-prime minister pair in the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Doubtless John Kerry, too, would like to see another Israeli leader with whom he could dance a real peace process.

Yet constraints against U.S. meddling abound. First, there’s the Republican-controlled Congress, which will be watching hawk-like for any such funny business. Second, there’s the absence of a clear and credible alternative to Bibi with whom the administration is close; and then there’s the matter of the lack of a big issue for such lobbying. The peace process is in a coma; and ISIS, Hamas, Assad, Hezbollah, and the Iranian mullahs make Israel look like the good guys. Finally, there’s Obama himself. He’s not Clinton. Does he really care? Do most Israelis trust him? Could he get away with a campaign that makes clear Bibi isn’t the right guy and candidate, but X is? I am betting on “no” to all three questions. Don’t even think about it, Mr. President.