Regardless of who is sworn in as president next January 20, Israeli-American relations are headed for a period of profound uncertainty. We’ve been so focused on debating whether and how Barack Obama gets along with Israel that we’ve completely overlooked a more important question: Can Benjamin Netanyahu can get along with the United States?
The question might sound frivolous, but it’s very serious. Netanyahu has served as prime minister opposite two presidents, Obama and Bill Clinton, both Democrats. Relations with both were terrible. What’s not clear is whether things would work any more smoothly if he faced a Republican president. Were Bibi’s strained ties with Clinton and Obama a product of his ideological and partisan leanings, and likely to ease if Romney’s team retakes the White House? Or are they expressions of his famously chest-thumping, confrontational political persona, hard-wired into him regardless of whom he’s facing?
It’s hard to know. For all the glib talk about his “speaking fluent Republican,” he’s never been tested in a real-time working situation. What we do know is that some of his nastiest confrontations with the White House in the past have involved gratuitous provocations of the sort he’s famous for in Israel — the kind of behavior that’s unremarkable in bare-knuckle domestic political infighting but remains decidedly non-standard in international diplomacy, especially for a small country dealing with its closest ally and protector.
The most notorious of these was Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in January 1998 to meet President Bill Clinton and strategize Israel’s ongoing negotiations with Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Arriving on Monday evening, January 19, hours after Clinton’s humiliating deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, Bibi went straight to the Mayflower Hotel for a religious-right rally sponsored by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Falwell was known as one of the leading purveyors of anti-Clinton conspiracy theories, to the point of peddling a video, “The Clinton Chronicles,” which accused Clinton of drug-running and complicity in the supposed murder of former aide Vince Foster. As Bibi entered the Mayflower ballroom and strode up to the dais that night, Falwell greeted him as “the Ronald Reagan of Israel,” to rowdy applause and cheers from the audience. Falwell was later quoted saying it “was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Clinton.”