One of the Marx Brothers — I think it was Karl — once wrote that history has a way of repeating itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” He forgot to mention how hard it is to tell which is which.
Case in point: Benjamin Netanyahu’s whirlwind, two-day United States visit at the end of September. The Israeli prime minister was on an urgent mission to halt the seduction of President Obama and other Western leaders by Iran’s silver-tongued new president, Hassan Rowhani. Netanyahu’s plan was to spend September 30 at the White House, convincing Obama and his top aides of Rowhani’s duplicity, and the next day, October 1, appealing to the conscience of the world from the rostrum of the United Nations.
The trouble was, his timing was off. Netanyahu arrived in Washington on the last day of the American fiscal year, at a moment when the eyes of the world were riveted by the Republican kneecapping of the U.S. government. His fulminations in the Oval Office scarcely registered on the Beltway Richter scale. His wakeup call to the world community barely managed to wake up the bored diplomats in the General Assembly hall.
Between the government shutdown and the launch of Obamacare, Bibi’s call to arms didn’t make the front pages.
In a weird way, it’s a repetition of an event in Netanyahu’s history, another mission to Washington that was overtaken by domestic U.S. politics. It was 15 years ago, in January 1998. The prime minister was at loggerheads with President Clinton over a much-delayed West Bank redeployment, or handover of land to the Palestinian Authority.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had signed onto the handover in September 1995, over the furious objections of then-opposition leader Netanyahu. A few weeks later Rabin was assassinated. Netanyahu became prime minister in 1996 and proceeded to stall, infuriating Clinton. Months of tension followed. In January 1998 Clinton finally called him on the carpet.
Netanyahu landed in Washington on January 20 and went directly to the Mayflower Hotel to address a conservative rally led by the Clinton-bashing Rev. Jerry Falwell. The White House was furious. Tensions were at a fever pitch when the president and prime minister met the next morning. Things were no better when they met again that evening.
But in the middle of that meeting Clinton was informed by an aide that the Washington Post was about to break the story of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The tone of the conversation immediately changed. Pressure on Netanyahu abruptly vanished and he returned home a hero.