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Bibi Walks a Tightrope During U.S. Visit in Wake of GOP Congressional Surge

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wrapping up his U.S. tour, which began with Jewish leftists heckling him this week at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, and went on to a nasty exchange of statements with the Obama administration over Israel’s building plans in East Jerusalem.

But it was also Bibi’s first chance to test the new political waters in the U.S following the midterm elections, and the Israeli PM, who is the immediate suspect when it comes to meddling in internal American politics, tried to keep it safe.

A senior Israeli official briefing reporters upon Netanyahu’s arrival stressed that the Israeli leader had made it clear before and during the midterm election campaign that he would not do anything to help one side or another. But apparently, representatives of both sides, Democrats and Republicans, tried to drag Netanyahu into the debate. According to the senior Israeli official, Jewish activists and politicians from the U.S. who met with Netanyahu before the elections had asked him to put in a good word for candidates on either side regarding their views on Israel. Netanyahu, the official said, refused.

Asked repeatedly in interviews he gave to several business TV networks about expected relations with the new Republican-led House of Representatives, Netanyahu said that the outgoing Congress was good for Israel and the incoming one will also be.

During his 5-day visit to the U.S. the Israeli PM tried to maintain his bi-partisan approach, steering clear from any political statement and making sure he spends equal time with representatives of both sides. On Wednesday he saw at his hotel in New York Republican Eric Cantor, the presumptive new Majority Leader, but he also invited Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer for a one-on-one. So the balance was kept. (Netanyahu did meet in New Orleans with Bobby Jindal, who is a rising star in the world of Republican politics, but this was in Jindal’s capacity as governor of the host state of Louisiana.)

But despite the effort to put on his bipartisan face, Bibi was still accused of playing politics.

In Tuesday’s New York Times, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer connected Obama’s weakened political stature and the rise of the GOP House majority to Netanyahu’s decision to rebut the administration’s strongly when Obama objected to his government’s new plans for expanding housing for Jews only in the Eastern, Palestinian dominated sector of the city, whose final status to be negotiated with the Palestinians. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said political calculations had nothing to do with it.

An Israeli official traveling with the prime minister told the Forward that Netanyahu’s tough stance on Jerusalem had to do with his sense that it is an issue worth fighting about because Israel is possibly entering serious final status negotiations, and was not related in any way to political changes in the U.S.

Still, Netanyahu’s past makes political observers watch very closely the way he manages relations with Congress and the administration. In the ‘90s, when Netanyahu was opposition leader and later prime minister, he was seen as playing a Republican Congress against the Democratic administration in a way that irritated then-president Bill Clinton. (Yet Clinton — Bill, not Hillary — came to Netanyahu’s hotel on Monday and during the pre-meeting photo-op had some warm words for the prime minister’s efforts to promote the peace process. Not a word about old grudges from the Newt Gingrich years.)

As we reported just before the elections, most experts believe that even if Netanyahu tried to pull such a trick again, he would likely fail.

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