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

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.

House Dems gather signatures for letter against annexation

A group of Democratic House members are collecting signatures for a letter cautioning Israeli leaders against unilaterally annexing portions of the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the government could begin annexing territory as early as July 1, though efforts to finalize a plan have stalled in recent days.

The letter, authored by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Brad Schneider (D-IL), Ted Deutch (D-FL) and David Price (D-NC), and shared with Jewish Insider, warns Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz that annexation is likely to jeopardize Israel’s warming ties with Gulf states, put Jordan’s security at risk and complicate Israel’s relationships in European countries and around the world. “We do not see how any of these acute risks serve the long-term interest of a strong, secure Israel,” the Democratic lawmakers write. 

The letter was distributed to members of the Demcoratic caucus on Monday. JTA first reported the content of the letter. 

Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) warned that unilateral Israeli annexation “puts the future [of peace] at risk and undermines our national security interest and decades of bipartisan policy.”

A similar letter from Democratic Senators garnered 19 signatures. The text of the letter, which was updated several times before being sent, cautioned the new Israeli government that “unilateral annexation puts both Israel’s security and democracy at risk” and “would have a clear impact on Israel’s future and our vital bilateral and bipartisan relationship.” Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tina Smith (D-MN) sent individual communiques to Netanyahu and Gantz, similarly opposing the move. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) addressed the matter in individual letters to Pompeo. 

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) sent a letter echoing those sentiments to President Donald Trump on Tuesday. “In recent months, your Administration appears to have given a green light to unilateral annexation, despite the risks to peace and Israel’s security and democracy,” the California senator wrote. Harris suggested that annexation “not only risks Israel’s security, but would also call into question this Israeli Government’s commitment to shared values of democracy and self-determination.” 

In the House letter, the lawmakers implore the Israeli government, “as committed partners in supporting and protecting the special U.S.-Israel relationship,” to “reconsider” annexation plans before the target date. “We have consistently endorsed the pursuit of a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians resulting in two states for two peoples and a brighter future for the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. In that vein, we write today to express our deep concern that the push for unilateral annexation of territory in the West Bank after July 1st will make these goals harder to achieve,” the letter reads. 

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) told JI in a recent interview that she would be open to signing such a letter. “While I do not generally believe that strict red lines aid the overriding effort towards a two-state solution, I do believe that there are some issues that have become so politically polarized that they risk politicizing the overall U.S.-Israeli relationship to the detriment of both nations,” Clarke explained. 

Below is the full letter: 

To:

Prime Minister Netanyahu

Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Gantz

Foreign Minister Ashkenazi

We write as American lawmakers who are long-time supporters, based on our shared democratic values and strategic interests, of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. We firmly believe in, and advocate for, a strong and secure Jewish and democratic State of Israel, a state able to build upon current peace treaties and expand cooperation with regional players and the international community. We have consistently endorsed the pursuit of a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians resulting in two states for two peoples and a brighter future for the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. In that vein, we write today to express our deep concern that the push for unilateral annexation of territory in the West Bank after July 1st will make these goals harder to achieve.

Longstanding, bipartisan U.S. foreign policy supports direct negotiations to achieve a viable two-state solution that addresses the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians, and their desire for long-term security and a just, sustainable peace. This position was twice reconfirmed by the U.S. House of Representatives last year. Our fear is that unilateral actions, taken by either side, will push the parties further from negotiations and the possibility of a final, negotiated agreement.  

We remain steadfast in our belief that pursuing two states for two peoples is essential to ensuring a secure, Jewish, democratic Israel able to live side-by-side, in peace and mutual recognition, with an independent, viable, de-militarized Palestinian state.

Unilateral annexation would likely jeopardize Israel’s significant progress on normalization with Arab states at a time when closer cooperation can contribute to countering shared threats.  Unilateral annexation risks insecurity in Jordan, with serious ancillary risks to Israel. Finally, unilateral annexation could create serious problems for Israel with its European friends and other partners around the world. We do not see how any of these acute risks serve the long-term interest of a strong, secure Israel.

As committed partners in supporting and protecting the special U.S.-Israel relationship, we express our deep concern with the stated intention to move ahead with any unilateral annexation of West Bank territory, and we urge your government to reconsider plans to do so.

Klobuchar and Smith join growing list of Democrats cautioning against annexation

Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Tina Smith (D-MN) have joined more than two dozen Senate Democrats publicly warning Israeli leaders of the implications of efforts to unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the government could start annexing territory as early as July 1.

In individual letters sent last month and made public over the weekend, both senators — Klobuchar addressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Smith wrote to Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz — posited that annexation would undermine efforts to attain a two-state solution.

Twenty-eight senators have so far spoken out against the annexation proposal.

Last month, 19 Democratic senators sent a letter to Netanyahu and Gantz urging the Israeli leaders not to move forward with the effort. That letter, which was updated several times before being sent, cautioned the new Israeli government that “unilateral annexation puts both Israel’s security and democracy at risk” and “would have a clear impact on Israel’s future and our vital bilateral and bipartisan relationship.” Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) sent individual communiques to Netanyahu and Gantz, similarly opposing the move, and Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) addressed the matter in individual letters to Pompeo. 

In addition, Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) issued statements against annexation, and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) indicated to Jewish Currents that instead of signing or authoring a letter on annexation, he would “communicate directly with [Israeli] Ambassador [Ron] Dermer and Israeli officials to express his concerns.” 

On Monday, eight Senate candidates in battleground states are expected to join the list expressing their strong opposition to such a move. In statements provided to J Street and shared with Jewish Insider, the candidates — Cal Cunningham (North Carolina), Sara Gideon (Maine), Teresa Greenfield (Iowa), Al Gross (Alaska), Jaime Harrison (South Carolina), MJ Hegar (Texas), John Hickenlooper (Colorado), Amy McGrath (Kentucky) and Jon Ossoff (Georgia) — emphasized that annexation would put the future of a two-state solution at risk. 

Read their statements in full here.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) warned that unilateral annexation “puts the future [of peace] at risk and undermines our national security interest and decades of bipartisan policy.” Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also came out against annexation, saying it “will choke off any hope for peace.”

“From the presidential nominee to the speaker of the House and from the Senate to the senatorial campaign trail, Democratic leaders have now made absolutely clear that they do not and cannot support unilateral annexation in the West Bank,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told JI. “For annexation to move forward in the face of this overwhelming opposition would be incredibly harmful to the future of Israelis and Palestinians and to the US-Israel relationship.”