It shouldn’t surprise anybody if Israel’s prime minister, “Bibi” Netanyahu, has a preference in the American election. Many governments do. In this administration, traditional allies have often gotten a cold shoulder (especially ones that depend on us) while adversaries have found sympathy. That’s what I argued in the print edition of NR recently, and Liz Cheney makes the same point in the Wall Street Journal today. But the case of Israel is special, simply because the United States has always intervened with such a heavy hand in the internal affairs and elections of that country.
Under Obama, Israel policy has been largely guided by old Clinton administration hands. Well, let’s take a trip down memory lane . . .
In the first half of the Clinton presidency, he and the Israeli Labor government of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin had walked hand-in-hand down the doomed road of the Oslo peace process. Now, in 1996, Peres faces a young Netanyahu in a general election, and Rabin lay dead, the victim of an Israeli assassin’s bullet. In The Missing Peace, chief White House negotiator Dennis Ross remembers that President Clinton felt a responsibility to Rabin’s legacy and his successor: “He saw Netanyahu as an unmistakable threat to that legacy and he would not sit idly by.” Clinton did what he could to ensure a Labor victory.
On the night of the election, Ross was back home as the results came in and it became clear that Bibi would pull an upset. Here’s what Ross remembers: “Our collective relief now became collective dread. Shimon would be out. Bibi, who had opposed Oslo, would be in. . . . I was reading the David Herbert Donald biography of Abraham Lincoln and was in the middle of the chapter dealing with his depression. On a night when I believed the prospects for peace had been dealt a serious setback, this seemed especially appropriate.”
If you want to appreciate how ironic (and frankly ridiculous) this passage is, consider that Bibi fully embraced the Oslo peace process; that the years of his first government (1996–99) were dominated by unseemly schoolyard spats over what a particular bulldozer might be doing in a mixed neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem (talk about intruding on internal politics); and that the peace process failed not under Bibi or because of him, but under a left-wing Israeli government, because of the intransigence of Yasser Arafat and the cabal of unreformed terrorists who represented the Palestinians. The Palestinians promptly unleashed a terror war that killed thousands of Israelis in buses, restaurants, and weddings throughout Israel, and it was in that midst of that constantly televised paroxysm of violence that we awoke to the World Trade Center burning in New York.
Bibi was right to oppose Oslo, which ignored the new Palestinian leaders and staked everything on the promises of PLO terrorists. And as I wrote shortly after Bibi’s last election victory in 2010, the Oslo process destroyed the Labor party and shifted the whole Israeli electorate to the right. So if Democrats hate dealing with Bibi, they have only themselves to blame. And if Bibi prefers not to deal with them, it’s richly deserved.