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Netanyahu memoir: Democrats feeling more leftist pressure on Israel than they publicly admit

In the new book, the former Israeli prime minister details his relations with four US presidents

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu writes in a new book that President Joe Biden pushed him last May to end the heavy airstrikes in the Gaza strip in response to 4,000 rockets fired at Israel because he was facing pressure from congressional Democrats. According to the Gaza health ministry, 243 Palestinians, including 66 children, and 12 Israelis were killed in the 11 days of intense fighting between Hamas and Israel. 

“Bibi, I gotta tell you, I’m coming under a lot of pressure back here,” Netanyahu quotes Biden as saying during one of the six phone calls the two leaders held that week that led to a ceasefire. The conversation, as reported by Netanyahu in his memoir, “Bibi: My story,” slated for publication on Tuesday, belies the president’s more recent dismissal of Democratic voices critical of Israel as relatively insignificant. An advanced copy of the book was obtained by the Forward. 

“This is not Scoop Jackson’s Democratic Party,” Biden reportedly continued, referring to the hawkish Democratic senator from Washington who died in 1983. “I’m getting squeezed here to put an end to this as soon as possible.” 

Biden’s aggressive attempts to reach a ceasefire underscored a generational divide on Israel among Democrats, with younger voices on the left led by Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley — who formed “The Squad” after their election in 2018. Last year, eight Democrats voted against funding for the replenishment of Israel’s anti-missile Iron Dome defense system, though some supported it in a subsequent vote. And 16 opposed a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. A recent Pew Research survey showed that 53% of Americans who identify themselves as Democrats hold a negative view of Israel. 

 

Earlier this year, in his first interview with the Israeli media ahead of his 10th trip to the Jewish state, Biden said he is not worried about anti-Israel sentiment in Congress. “There’s no possibility, I think, of the Democratic Party or even a significant portion of the Republican Party walking away from Israel,” he said.

Netanyahu had a stronger relationship with former President Donald Trump than with his Democratic predecessors, but the relationship frayed Israeli ties with Democrats. 

‘You’re going into a political tinderbox’

But the book also shares behind-the-scenes details of an episode in which Netanyahu risked Democratic support for Israel well before the rise of The Squad.

At the height of tensions with former President Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal in March 2015, the prime minister accepted an invitation from then-Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress. Sixty members boycotted the speech. No Obama administration officials attended. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the joint Congress session on March 3, 2015. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

Netanyahu writes that he needed a majority in Congress to oppose the deal, and would not be dissuaded from making the address, despite stern warnings from Jewish Democrats and senior cabinet members about rupturing relations with the U.S., Israel’s most important ally. A longtime friend, Mort Zuckerman, then publisher of U.S. News & World Report, advised him to at least be as respectful as possible to Obama. “You’re going into a political tinderbox,” Zuckerman told the prime minister. “Democratic sensibilities are at their height. I’ve never seen anything like this tension.”

 

Netanyahu writes that he took that advice and it served him well. Sen. Chuck Schumer, then Senate minority leader and an opponent of the deal, approached him after the speech and said it moved six Democrats to support a Republican-led bill that would give Congress a role to review and eventually vote on the deal. “I was relieved,” Netanyahu writes.

The deal eventually passed Congress, 98-1 in the Senate and 400-25 in the House.

Even if Democrats couldn’t derail the speech, Netanyahu worried that his own sinuses would. He reveals that the night before, he couldn’t fall asleep due to a severe cold. During a practice run, he couldn’t make it through a sentence. “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” he told his wife Sara. “The most important speech of my life and I’m going to be foiled by this?” The various remedies he tried all failed. But the next morning, as he entered the Capitol, “the miracle of miracles” happened, he writes. His sinuses cleared. 

During the speech, Netanyahu continued, he noticed that Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader, turned her back on him. “When speakers spot indifferent or hostile members in an audience, they often get dejected,” he writes. “Not me. Nothing energizes me more.” 

“Back in the hotel, I was drained of energy, like a boxer after a bruising fight,” he added. 

Details on the peace process, Iran 

Netanyahu dedicates several chapters to his strained relationship with Obama, including a detailed description of their first White House meeting, in which Obama told him to relinquish settlements in the occupied West Bank. He writes that his clash with Obama was not “personal” but ideological. And he criticizes Obama officials who attacked him as narrow-minded, describing them as “people who never risked their lives on a battlefield.” 

The book claims that Obama refused to commit to vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution against Israel six years before the U.S. abstained on UNSC 2334, which condemned Israeli settlements. It was after the May 31, 2010, IDF raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla from Turkey in which nine Turkish passengers, including one U.S. citizen, were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos as the ship attempted to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza. “If I do that, America will be isolated,” Obama told Netanyahu, who asked the U.S. to use its veto power if the UN body rushes to judgment against Israel. The veto was not needed after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon promised to appoint an impartial commission that later confirmed the blockade was legal.

Though the pair frequently feuded in public over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu writes that in late 2009 he privately sought to ease the tension with the president by agreeing to impose a 10-month freeze on settlements, and that he later proposed a peace summit at Camp David. The strategy was to buy more time to develop Israel’s military capabilities and to ease international pressure in the wake of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama at the White House on Jan. 9, 2010. Photo by Moshe Milner/GPO

But his attempt to get the U.S. to greenlight military action failed. In a 2012 Oval Office meeting, Obama warned Netanyahu that the Israeli move would “be a mistake” and result in the collapse of the sanctions regime against Iran. He later dispatched a number of administration officials to frustrate Israeli preparations for an attack. 

During Obama’s visit to Israel in 2013, Netanyahu met even greater resistance as he lobbied for a U.S. strike on Iran. “Nobody likes Goliath,” Obama said, according to Netanyahu. “I don’t want to be an eight-hundred-pound gorilla strutting on the world stage. For too long we acted that way.” 

Years later, at the start of his first meeting with Trump at the White House, the new president asked Netanyahu, “Why didn’t you bomb them?” Netanyahu said he replied, “Because I didn’t have the votes at the time. But it’s still an option.” 

The ‘best’ years for the alliance

When Trump was elected, Netanyahu saw great opportunity, and set four goals for the American president’s first term: Move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognize Israel’s control over the Golan Heights, withdraw from the Iran deal and make peace with the Arab world. All four of them, Netanyahu writes, were accomplished before Trump left office. 

“Despite bumps in the road, our years together were the best ever for the Israeli-American alliance,” Netanyahu writes at the conclusion of his memoir, calling Trump a “true trailblazer.” 

President Donald Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Jan. 27, 2020. Photo by Shealah Craighead/White House

But the start of the Trump-Netanyahu relationship was not auspicious. Netanyahu was dejected by an early call from Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and point person on Middle East peace, to Israel’s ambassador, Ron Dermer, suggesting Israel should freeze construction in the settlements “for a couple of years” to pave the way for a peace deal. “Normally, I don’t give in to despondency. But I did now,” Netanyahu writes about his reaction at the time. Pointing to the pressure he got from former President Bill Clinton and Obama, Netanyahu asks, “Was I now condemned to another four years of this nonsense?” 

Netanyahu also blamed Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a longtime friend and adviser to Trump, for driving a wedge between him and the U.S. president. Lauder badmouthed him, he writes, and pushed his own peace deal with the Palestinians. In a recent book, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman revealed that Lauder had pitched a Middle East peace plan built on the two-state solution that Trump was “enthusiastic” about.

When Trump visited Israel later that year, he complained to President Reuven Rivlin that “Bibi doesn’t want peace.” In response, Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman produced a video which showed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calling for the destruction of Israel and glorifying terrorists in Arabic. They hoped Trump would “adjust his thinking” about the Palestinian leader. “I could see that the video registered with Trump, at least momentarily,” Netanyahu writes.

He also showed Trump a slide presentation that compared the distance between Tel Aviv and the occupied West Bank, to the distance between Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and the George Washington Bridge. “‘Mr. President,’ I said, ‘would you let a regime that wants to annihilate you set up a state at the George Washington Bridge? Of course not. Neither would we,’” Netanyahu writes. 

Netanyahu also posits that without interference from Lauder — though he doesn’t mention him explicitly by name — the Abraham Accords would have been signed at the beginning of Trump’s term rather than the end. 

In Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, 1996-1999, Lauder secretly negotiated a peace deal on behalf of Netanyahu with Syrian then-President Hafez al-Assad.

Netanyahu disputes Kushner’s account that Trump was caught off guard when the prime minister indicated at the January 2020 rollout event for the Mideast peace plan that the U.S. backed his intention to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to the former prime minister, Trump agreed in a letter he sent the day before the ceremony to immediately recognize Israeli control over 30% of the West Bank, in exchange for a written commitment from Netanyahu that he would allow the creation of a Palestinian state over the rest of the territory. But following Netanyahu’s declaration, the White House pressured him to retract his declaration and worked to foil the plan. 

“What transpired to bring about this change is still unclear,” Netanyahu writes, wondering whether Kushner and Friedman didn’t fully explain to the president what the commitment entailed. “Whatever the reason, it was inappropriate and cost me a great deal.”

A genuine friendship

Following the election of Biden, Netanyahu tweeted his congratulations to the president-elect while Trump was still contesting the results, though he waited for weeks for a return call after Biden entered office. In the book, Netanyahu doesn’t respond to Trump’s profane remarks about the prime minister’s outreach to the president-elect — as detailed in a recent book by Israeli journalist Barak Ravid — but acknowledges that it “elicited the ire of President Trump, who to this day believes” that he was the first foreign leader to do so. 

Netanyahu writes that despite a fraught relationship with Obama he enjoyed a close friendship with then-Vice President Biden and appreciated his frankness. Biden often repeated a line he once told Netanyahu: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you had to say, but I love you.”

“On many occasions the feeling was mutual,” Netanyahu writes. 

Vice President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Israel on March 9, 2016. Courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem

The Biden-Netanyahu relationship is nearly 40 years old, beginning when Netanyahu first visited Washington in the early 1980s. On Biden’s recent Israel trip, during the welcome ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Netanyahu was the first dignitary Biden shook hands with after his fist bumps with other Israeli leaders, despite the White House’s earlier assertion that Biden wouldn’t shake hands with anyone because of a spike in coronavirus cases. “You know I love you,” Biden told Netanyahu, comments which were aired live on Israeli television

At the start of the Obama administration, as Netanyahu was facing pressure to endorse a two-state solution and resume negotiations with the Palestinians, Biden told Netanyahu he would serve as his backchannel ally. “You don’t have too many friends here, buddy,” Biden told Netanyahu during a meeting at the official vice president’s residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory, Netanyahu writes of the conversation. “I’m the one friend you do have. So call me when you need to.”

A year later, as Biden visited Israel to ease tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, the then-vice president was blindsided by a plan to build 1,600 units for Jews in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who immediately expressed regret about the move, writes that before departing Israel, Biden told him in a phone call that there had been much pushback in Washington against the announcement but he “was glad” they were able to put the matter to bed.

“Thanks for getting my chestnuts out of the fire,” Netanyahu quoted Biden as saying. 

Netanyahu accused the Obama administration of always judging him “in the worse possible light.”

A rare admission 

Netanyahu writes that he may have struck too tough a tone with former President Bill Clinton at their first meeting in 1996. He was angry that Clinton had interfered in the Israeli election, sending his political advisers to help Netanyahu’s rival, Shimon Peres. 

The American president bristled at what he considered Netanyahu’s lecturing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton on Oct. 30, 2015. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO

But Clinton, Netanyahu writes, also seemed to know how to diffuse tensions between the two.

“Bibi, I’ve got to hand it to you,” Netanyahu quotes Clinton telling him in their first phone call after his surprise upset. ‘‘We did everything we could to bring you down, but you beat us fair and square.” 

Netanyahu writes that he was charmed by Clinton’s honesty. He was “refreshingly politically incorrect.”

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