Washington - Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli prime minister and the front-runner for that position once again, barnstormed Washington this week in what looked like a pre-emptive victory lap.
In the wake of a recent visit by embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, met with New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, and with former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, the latest addition to the pack of Republican contenders. The powwows come three months after a separate visit during which Netanyahu met with a number of other leading presidential candidates.
The discussions this week ostensibly focused on the need to block Iran’s nuclear program by using economic sanctions and divestment. But for Netanyahu, who is soaring in Israeli polls, the talks about divestment from Iran had a distinctly forward-looking bent.
“It is important for Israel that whoever leads the United States in the future will be supportive of these actions,” Netanyahu said following his meetings in Washington.
Netanyahu was prime minister during the 1990s and has long sought another chance at Israel’s top office. His flawless English and his polished delivery have always made him popular in the United States, though he has often struggled to gain traction among Israeli voters. Now, though, with the current government sinking in popularity, and elections widely anticipated, polls show that Netanyahu enjoys a huge lead over both Olmert and Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader.
In his recent visits, Netanyahu seems to have taken on the posture of a man who has already won the elections and is now tending to relations abroad.
In a meeting on Capitol Hill last Thursday, Netanyahu and Clinton discussed the situation in the Palestinian Authority following the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the international community’s response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Sources attending the meeting characterized it as positive and engaging, with Clinton stressing the need to free America from its dependency on foreign oil.
After another meeting with Thompson, Netanyahu described the former senator as an “old friend.”
During Netanyahu’s previous visit, three months ago, he met with Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards and with Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Michael Bloomberg.
These high-profile meetings help Netanyahu in Israel, but they also suggest the sway that Netanyahu holds for American Jews, even seven years after leaving office.
Netanyahu said that his freelance diplomacy is carried out with the knowledge and permission of Olmert and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In a meeting with reporters in Washington last week, Netanyahu said he did not discuss internal Israeli politics in his meetings with American candidates.
While he has recently discussed the Palestinian situation, most of his conversations in America have been focused on the need to avert the Iranian government’s nuclear ambitions with economic sanctions, most of all with full divestment from companies that deal with Iran.
The idea of divestiture from Iran has been circulating in the pro-Israel community for more than a year, but concrete movement has been seen in recent weeks, when the Florida state government decided to pull out its pension fund investments from companies that deal with Iran. California and New York are considering similar measures.
A diplomatic source added that by taking on a leading role in calling for divestment, Netanyahu has carved himself a niche that other Israeli officials have hardly touched.
An Israeli source from Netanyahu’s inner circle argued that Netanyahu has a special appeal to Democrats right now because his economic solution to the Iranian problem suits Democrats who want to avoid military engagement.
The good will in the meetings with Clinton was particularly surprising because of the history between Netanyahu and the Clinton family.
Bill Clinton is said to have had difficulties working with Netanyahu during Clinton’s presidency in the ’90s, when Netanyahu maintained strong ties with the Republican leadership in Congress. Clinton ended up actively promoting Netanyahu’s opponent, Shimon Peres, by arranging a last-minute anti-terror summit on the eve of the ’96 elections.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman