Obama: Netanyahu paints himself as ‘chief defender’ of Jews to justify political moves

In his new memoir, former President Barack Obama shines a light on tensions with the Israeli premier and AIPAC

In a new book looking back at his eight years in the White House, former President Barack Obama details his sometimes turbulent relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu going back to 2009, when both world leaders took office. A Promised Land, the first of two memoirs the former president is writing about his time in office, is set to be released on Tuesday. 

Obama describes Netanyahu as “smart, canny, tough and a gifted communicator” who could be “charming, or at least solicitous” when it benefited him, Obama writes in the book, a copy of which was reviewed in advance by Jewish Insider.

Obama points to a conversation the pair had in a Chicago airport lounge in 2005, shortly after Obama was elected to the Senate, in which Netanyahu was “lavishing praise” on him for “an inconsequential pro-Israel bill” the newly elected senator had supported when he served in the Illinois state legislature. But when it came to policy disagreements, Obama observed, Netanyahu was able to use his familiarity with U.S. politics and media to push back against efforts by his administration.

Netanyahu’s “vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power,” Obama wrote.

The former president writes that his chief of staff at the time, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, warned him when he took office, “You don’t get progress on peace when the American president and the Israeli prime minister come from different political backgrounds.” Obama said he began to understand that perspective as he spent time with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. 

Looking back, Obama wrote, he sometimes wondered whether “things might have played out differently” if there was a different president in the Oval Office, if someone other than Netanyahu represented Israel and if Abbas had been younger. 

In the book, the former president also grumbles about the treatment he received from leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who questioned his policies on Israel. Obama wrote that as Israeli politics moved to the right, AIPAC’s broad policy positions shifted accordingly, “even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy” and that lawmakers and candidates who “criticized Israel policy too loudly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and [were] confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.” 

Obama writes that he was “on the receiving end” of a “whisper campaign” that portrayed him as being “insufficiently supportive — or even hostile toward — Israel” during his 2008 presidential run. “On Election Day, I’d end up getting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote, but as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties; someone whose support for Israel, as one of [David Axelrod’s] friends colorfully put it, wasn’t ‘felt in his kishkes’ — ‘guts,’ in Yiddish.” 

Obama wrote that former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, who worked as a speechwriter for the 2008 campaign, told him that the attacks against him were a result of him being “a Black man with a Muslim name who lived in the same neighborhood as Louis Farrakhan and went to Jeremia Wright’s church” and not based on his policy views that were aligned with the positions of other political candidates. 

The former president writes that while in college, he was intrigued by the influence of Jewish philosophers on the civil rights movement. He noted that some of his “most stalwart friends and supporters” came from the Chicago’s Jewish community and that he had admired how Jewish voters “tended to be more progressive” on issues than any other“ethnic group. Obama writes that a feeling of being bound to the Jewish community by “a common story of exile and suffering” made him “fiercely protective” of the rights of the Jewish people to have a state of their own, though these values also made it “impossible to ignore the conditions under which Palestinians in the occupied territories were forced to live.”

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the Oval Office Monday, May 18, 2009.

According to Obama, while Republican lawmakers cared less about the right of Palestinians to have a state of their own, Democratic members of Congress — who represented districts with sizable Jewish populations — were reluctant to speak out about the matter because they were “worried” about losing support from AIPAC’s key supporters and donors and imperiling their reelection chances. 

In the memoir, Obama recalled his visit to the Western Wall as a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008 and the publication of the prayer note he stuffed into the cracks of the wall by an Israeli newspaper. The episode was a reminder of the price that came with stepping onto the world stage, he wrote. “Get used to it, I told myself. It’s part of the deal.”

The book provides an inside look into the political jockeying between the Israeli government and the administration over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama maintains that he thought it was “reasonable” to ask for Israel, which he viewed as the “stronger party,” to take a “bigger first step” and freeze settlements in the West Bank. But “as expected,” Netanyahu’s response was “sharply negative.” That was followed by an aggressive pressure campaign by the prime minister’s allies in Washington. 

“The White House phones started ringing off the hook,” Obama recounts, as his national security team fielded calls from lawmakers, Jewish leaders and reporters “wondering why we were picking on Israel.” He wrote that Rhodes once arrived late for a staff meeting “looking particularly harried” after a lengthy phone call with a “highly agitated” liberal Democratic congressman who pushed back against the administration’s attempt to stop settlement activity. 

Obama accused Netanyahu of an “orchestrated” effort to put his administration on the defensive, “reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister exacted a domestic political cost” that didn’t exist in relations with other world leaders. 

In 2010, when Netanyahu visited Washington to attend the annual AIPAC policy conference, media reports claimed that Obama deliberately “snubbed” Netanyahu by walking out from a tense meeting and leaving the Israeli leader and his aides in the Roosevelt Room until they came up with a solution to the impasse in peace talks. 

But in the book, Obama insists he suggested to Netanyahu to “pause” their meeting and reconvene after he returned from a previously scheduled commitment. The discussion, the former president said, ran well over the allotted time, and “Netanyahu still had a few items he wanted to cover.” Netanyahu said “he was happy to wait,” Obama writes, and the second meeting ended on “cordial terms.” However, the next morning, Emanuel “stormed into” the Oval Office citing the media reports that he humiliated Netanyahu, “leading to accusations” that the president had allowed his personal feelings to damage the U.S.-Israel relationship. “That was a rare instance when I outcursed Rahm,” Obama writes, referencing Emanuel’s well-known use of profanity.

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