Netanyahu at WarView Film
Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser
NARRATOR: March 2015.
NEWSCASTER: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—
NARRATOR: Jerusalem, at the prime minister’s residence. Benjamin Netanyahu was determined to stop President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
NEWSCASTER: Benjamin Netanyahu has accused the U.S. and others of giving up—
EYAL ARAD, Fmr. Netanyahu Adviser: The prime minister has a Messianic notion of himself as a person called to save the Jewish people.
NARRATOR: He was about to deliver a speech to the American Congress.
TZACHI HANEGBI, Netanyahu Adviser: He never made such an important speech, but he felt he had a historic role to play and he cannot make a mistake.
ARI SHAVIT, Author, My Promised Land: He wants to be the Winston Churchill who stops the new evil power, Iran, in the way that Churchill stopped Nazi Germany.
NEWSCASTER: The prime minister left Tel Aviv this morning. He is scheduled to address Congress—
ARI SHAVIT: He wants it to be clear that he made the most powerful statement possible to warn against this deal so when the deal turns bad, he’ll go down in history as the person who warned us all from what’s about to happen.
NEWSCASTER: Benjamin Netanyahu has arrived in Washington,
NARRATOR: Netanyahu came as Israel’s right-wing leader vowing to keep his country safe from its archenemy, Iran.
NEWSCASTER: Netanyahu was invited to speak by John Boehner. A row between the Obama administration and Israel’s prime minister—
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: It’s rarely somebody who comes to say, “Your president is wrong and you, the Congress, in effect, need to stop it.”
NEWSCASTER: —adding to growing tensions between the U.S.—
NEWSCASTER: Netanyahu will speak to Congress—
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Adviser, 2009-11: It was extraordinary for a foreign leader to come into the United States Congress and use it as a platform to try and undermine administration policy.
NEWSCASTER: The prime minister angered the White House by not—
DAVID AXELROD: It was a really audacious thing to do.
CHEMI SHALEV, Reporter, Ha’aretz: He’s definitely willing to sacrifice Israeli-U.S. relations in order to do what he thinks is proper to fight off the Iranian challenge.
NARRATOR: His audience, the Republican-controlled Congress, the president’s fiercest critics.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The days when the Jewish people remain passive in the face of genocidal enemies— those days are over! [cheers, standing ovation] We must always remember the greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. [cheers, standing ovation]
RONEN BERGMAN, Author, The Secret War With Iran: There was no other time when the Israeli prime minister let himself be so deeply involved in American politics, recruiting, redrafting American politics against the American president!
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: America’s founding document promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Iran’s founding document pledges death, tyranny and the pursuit of jihad. [cheers, standing ovation]
NEWSCASTER: Netanyahu did an end run around President Obama today—
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [applause] Thank you, America! Thank you!
NEWSCASTER: With even some Democratic supporters of the president calling the speech powerful—
NEWSCASTER: Netanyahu did not mince words about U.S.-led nuclear talks with Iran.
NEWSCASTER: —bringing relations between the Israel and the White House to a new low.
NARRATOR: President Barack Obama’s anger was no secret.
NEWSCASTER: They seem to hate each other.
CHEMI SHALEV: This was the height of the White House’s animosity towards Netanyahu. I think they viewed this almost as a usurpation, as a coup d’etat, and they were livid.
NARRATOR: It was a direct attack on his foreign policy legacy.
SANDY BERGER, Fmr. National Security Adviser: He very much wanted to recast the United States as a friend of the Islamic world. Part of that narrative is that we’ve been associated with Israel too closely.
NARRATOR: Obama summoned the press into the Oval Office.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Tell me when everybody’s in.
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The New Yorker: Barack Obama is furious, furious! It’s a humiliation for him. It’s a humiliation in the midst of a very delicate negotiation with Iran.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The alternative that the prime minister offers is no deal, in which case, Iran will immediately begin once again pursuing its nuclear program—
PETER BAKER: The president was angry. He thought this was an affront—
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: —without us having any insight into what they’re doing.
PETER BAKER: —and it was deliberate, and he wasn’t going to try to make nice and pretend it wasn’t what he thought it really was.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: All right? Thank you, guys. Appreciate it.
AARON DAVID MILLER, State Dept., 1978-2003: It clearly reveals a degree of dysfunction on both sides. This, in some respects, was a train wreck waiting to happen even from the beginning.
NARRATOR: For Benjamin Netanyahu, the clash with the American president was only the latest in a lifelong battle.
NEWSCASTER: Three armed Arabs today hijacked a Belgian airliner flying from Vienna to Tel Aviv.
NARRATOR: In his early 20s, Netanyahu saw military action.
NEWSCASTER: —after being hijacked by three Arab guerrillas—
NARRATOR: Palestinian militants had hijacked a plane bound for Israel.
NEWSCASTER: The plane and its occupants would be blown up.
NARRATOR: The world watched to see how the Israelis would react.
SHIMON PERES, Israeli Transport Minister: The basic news is that armed persons who claim to belong to a terroristic organization which is called the Black September took over a Sabena plane.
NARRATOR: Lieutenant Netanyahu would be part of the special Israeli strike force.
CHEMI SHALEV: Mr. Netanyahu was a member of the Sayeret Matkal Unit, which is the— it’s like Navy SEALs. It’s the fabled unit of the Israeli Army. It’s the one that anybody who was anybody wanted to belong to.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu and the others dressed in airport mechanics’ white overalls.
AMIRAM LEVIN, Cmdr. of Sayeret Matkal, 1976-78: The decision was to act as a mechanical and technicians, you know, who is coming to take care about the airplane. And then they penetrate very quick into the airplane.
NEWSCASTER: Are they shooting? Yes. They’re shooting. They’re inside the aircraft.
NEWSCASTER: Suddenly, they burst through the doorways and escape hatches, guns blazing. Passengers leaped from the plane while the Israelis dueled with the hijackers.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu charged to the front of the plane.
NEWSCASTER: —gunned down the male hijackers, captured the Arab women and freed the passengers.
RONEN BERGMAN: This was an unbelievable success. Two of the terrorists dead, and some of the Sayeret Matkal team injured, including Benjamin Netanyahu, who was injured in his hand because of his friend’s bullet that was fired in the wrong direction. But you know, minimal cost.
NEWSCASTER: The passengers, many of them Israelis, received a jubilant welcome as they trooped into the airport building.
NARRATOR: In the days after the raid, Netanyahu received praise from Israel’s president.
CHEMI SHALEV: I think there was an element of a rite of passage for Netanyahu to be in such a unit. There was nothing grander than being in Sayeret Matkal.
NARRATOR: He had earned full-fledged Israeli status, essential experience for a young man who spent his formative years in America. When he was 7, Benjamin, who was called Bibi, and his two brothers, Yoni and Iddo, left Israel.
EYAL ARAD, Netanyahu Adviser, 1984-96: He spent some of his best years in the United States. And Netanyahu truly admires America, the American culture, the American language, everything about America.
NARRATOR: He attended elementary school in New York, high school in suburban Philadelphia. He picked up flawless American English.
ARI SHAVIT: He’s so American. When you have a conversation with Netanyahu, when he really gets engaged in it, he switches from Hebrew to English.
NARRATOR: The move to America was not voluntary. Bibi’s father believed he was forced to leave Israel because of his strident right-wing politics.
DAVID REMNICK: Benzion Netanyahu did not get tenure at the Hebrew University as a historian. And he considered it a great defeat and humiliation to have to leave the country and find his academic way in the United States.
NARRATOR: As a history professor in America, Bibi’s father Benzion drew a dark picture of the threats facing the Jewish people.
AARON DAVID MILLER, State Dept., 1978-2003: He sees a world that is fundamentally hostile, a world that is afflicted by an internal anti-Semitism, that the Nazi Holocaust was part of a long series of acts against Jews.
NARRATOR: It was a worldview passed on to Bibi and his brothers.
EYAL ARAD: The outlook coming from his father is that there will always be a hostile world that would not care for the security and welfare of the Jewish nation, and one thing that we should do is do it ourselves.
NARRATOR: The brothers were told it was up to them to protect Israel.
ARI SHAVIT, Author, My Promised Land: They’re out to get us. They might kill us. Israel is fragile. My role is to save this people, who are like childish. They don’t understand history and world politics. And my role is to try to save them from their own mistakes and from these terribly demonic evil forces surrounding them. This is basically the Netanyahu gestalt.
NARRATOR: And in 1967—
NEWSCASTER: Jordanian King Hussein signs a military pact with Nasser—
NARRATOR: —Bibi watched as his father’s dire warnings were transformed into reality. Arab Armies had massed on Israel’s borders.
NEWSCASTER: In Egypt alone, there were more than a quarter of a million soldiers—
NARRATOR: Thousands of tanks from Egypt, Jordan, Syria surrounded the Israelis.
NEWSCASTER: Hundreds of rocket launchers—
EYAL ARAD: The feeling here in Israel is that we’ll look at a very close and clear danger of being exterminated.
NEWSCASTER: The head of the Palestine Liberation Army, Ahmed Shukri, calls for a jihad, a holy war. “We shall slaughter you. We shall wipe you out. Kill the Jews. Wipe out Israel.”
CHEMI SHALEV, Reporter, Ha’aretz: At least for Netanyahu’s father, this was, you know, history repeating itself.
NEWSCASTER: Low-flying Israeli jets swooped in from the Mediterranean, avoiding the radar—
NARRATOR: Following a surprise air attack, Israel defeated the Arab armies.
NEWSCASTER: —as crack air force, infantry, artillery and tank corps combine to sweep across the Sinai peninsula.
NARRATOR: The 1967 war lasted only six days.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: Israel saves its own life. The victory was so profound and so sudden that it had a destabilizing effect. It set in motion a lot of what we’re dealing with today.
NEWSCASTER: The war has created new refugee camps. More than a million Arabs have been displaced. Homeless and helpless, they struggle to survive while the search for peace, lasting peace, goes on.
NARRATOR: By the end of the ‘67 war, Israel occupied the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. Israel had more than tripled in size. The occupation of land inhabited by Palestinians would ignite decades of conflict. But for the Israelis, it was an historic victory.
DORE GOLD, Netanyahu Adviser: That’s the story of the Six Day War. It shows you have to be alert. You have to have good intelligence. And if your country is threatened, you have to respond quickly.
NARRATOR: A senior in high school in America, Bibi had skipped his graduation to return to Israel for the war, to dig trenches. He would witness a turning point in Israeli history.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: You could understand why it’s so intoxicating, and if you’re an 18-year-old who was raised in the household of Benzion Netanyahu, who has a fatalistic understanding of the nature of the world, you assume the worst. You assume the worst thing is going to happen. And then this miraculous, best thing happens, it has to sort of set you on a course for the rest of your life.
NARRATOR: That course would lead him to fight in yet another war with Israel’s neighbors, and then to the devastating loss of his older brother, Yoni, a national hero who was killed in action.
EYAL ARAD, Netanyahu Adviser, 1984-96: Yoni in Israel is one of the line of mythical heroes of Israel’s independence. People name their children after Yoni Netanyahu. His book, Letters of Yoni, became one of the most read books, rivaling The Diary of Anne Frank. So Yoni is certainly a national hero.
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The New Yorker: The death of his brother affected him immensely, as the violent death of anyone’s brother would. But it also enlarged his sense of purpose, his self-regard, his sense of destiny, his sense of mission and purpose. There’s no question about that.
ANNOUNCER: From Faneuil Hall in Boston, The Advocates.
NARRATOR: Not long after his brother’s death, Netanyahu began a new life on American television.
PETER BEINART, Author, The Crisis of Zionism: The first thing that happens is that Benjamin Netanyahu begins to present himself as an expert on terrorism.
MORRIS ABRAM, Advocate: I call now as my first witness Mr. Benjamin Nitay.
NARRATOR: Having graduated from MIT and Americanized his name to “Ben Nitay,” he would fight for Israel in his own way—
MORRIS ABRAM: We have peace in the Middle East—
NARRATOR: —waging the battle for public opinion.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Look, I’m 28 years old. I’ve had to defend my country in two wars and in many battles. Nobody wants peace more than Israel. But the stumbling block to the road for peace is this demand for a PLO state which will mean more war, which will mean more violence in the Middle East.
EYAL ARAD: Netanyahu was one of the earliest people who brought up this message, that there is a war going on and it’s a war between good and evil—
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: And as I said— [crosstalk]
FOUAD AJAMI, Advocate: I’m not talking about the Arabs in Israel, I’m talking about the Arabs on the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: If you’ll let me, I’ll answer your question, Mr. Ajami, please.
EYAL ARAD: —and that you have to stand up in that war and you cannot just run away. You have to fight it and win it.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Israel wants to live in peace and wants to be secure. If that involves maintaining our own military guarantees against the destruction of people who surround us, yes, I believe we should fight for our survival. If I have to, I’ll fight again, but I hope not to.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Ajami.
NARRATOR: By the 1980s, he was appointed an official spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington as “Benjamin Netanyahu.”
PETER BEINART: Benjamin Netanyahu begins his Israeli political career in the United States. He’s unknown in Israel in the 1980s.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I cannot imagine the growth of international terrorism in the last 15 years without the pivotal role played by Yasser Arafat’s PLO. What we are doing is trying to stop this kind of terror from spreading.
MARVIN KALB, NBC News, 1980-87: The idea of Bibi being a performer on television goes way back. You represent your country. You sell your country. And that is what he did, and he did it with enormous pride and confidence.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The Arabs tried regular war. They failed. They tried terrorism. They failed. They’ve now embarked on a new strategy. It’s called anarchy and trial by media.
DAVID REMNICK: He has a perfect American accent, what he thinks is a fingertip feel for American sensibilities and touchpoints, and he’s great for CNN.
NARRATOR: And in Ronald Reagan’s America, Netanyahu was a rising star.
PETER BEINART: He’s already a celebrity with the Jewish right in the United States.
CHEMI SHALEV, Reporter, Ha'aretz: He cultivated from the outset Jewish rich people, Jewish millionaires, who would pay almost any sum at the time to be near him and to— you know, to get a whiff of his, what’s it called, stardust.
NEWSCASTER: Diplomats here were gathering a short time ago for their third annual—
NARRATOR: At age 34, Netanyahu was appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. He became Israel’s chief defender against criticism of its ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: What the Security Council is doing is sending a very clear message. It’s saying basically this. It says, “We condone all Palestinian violence against Israel. We condemn any Israeli countermeasures.”
ARI SHAVIT: That’s what he was built for. That was what he was designed for. It was Reagan’s America in the 1980s. Terror is the danger, and at the heart of the Netanyahu worldview is seeing Israel as the fortress facing forces endangering Western civilization.
NARRATOR: In 1988 Netanyahu, resigned. He returned to Israel to build his own right-wing political base.
NEWSCASTER: Preparations are under way. We expect to see the president shortly—
NEWSCASTER: —for what he called an historic and honorable compromise.
NARRATOR: By the early-1990s, Netanyahu’s hard-line politics were out of fashion. The talk was no longer of war but of peace. Negotiations were under way with their Arab neighbors.
NEWSCASTER: It’s a day for optimism.
NARRATOR: And now with the Palestinians.
NEWSCASTER: —by the principals, by the PLO and the Israeli—
NARRATOR: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a former general and hero of the ‘67 war, represented Israel.
NEWSCASTER: —have now agreed to lay down their guns and—
NARRATOR: Representing the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO.
NEWSCASTER: —peace agreement designed to put an end to 45 years—
DENNIS ROSS, Middle East Envoy, 1993-2001: This is a historic breakthrough between Israel and the PLO, two national movements competing for the same space, and for the first time, they’re prepared to recognize each other.
NARRATOR: Known as the Oslo Accord, it was designed to end years of violence by laying out a peace process, a deal that could give Palestinians their own state and land captured in the ‘67 war.
SAEB EREKAT, Palestinian Negotiator: Once the agreement was done, it was the White House as the venue agreed for the signature. President Clinton felt this was his baby.
NARRATOR: But that day, things were tense.
DENNIS ROSS: To the last minute, there were issues. Rabin is insisting that Arafat can’t come in anything that looks like a uniform. We’re telling Arafat, “Don’t even— you can’t come with a— you don’t bring a weapon.” You know, he always had a pistol. “You don’t bring a weapon to the White House.”
SANDY BERGER, Clinton Adviser: Then, at a point, the president looks at Rabin, and he says, “You’re going to have to shake his hand.” And Rabin looked like someone had punched him in the stomach. And he stood there for a moment. This is a man he considered a terrorist all his life. And he said to Clinton, “OK. But no kissing.”
So we then went down to the Oval Office and we worked out maneuvers with Clinton of how if— Arafat liked to kiss, usually three kisses. And we worked out sort of football, basketball moves of how Clinton could step in various ways, if Arafat made a lunge towards Rabin, how Clinton could break them up.
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, the president of the United States.
NARRATOR: The ceremony was carefully scripted. There were speeches, the signing of the Oslo Accord, and all eyes were on Arafat and Rabin.
DENNIS ROSS: Rabin is very uneasy. The idea of personally shaking hands with this guy is physically difficult for him. He couldn’t hide his feelings. And that comes through.
NEWSCASTER: —the first agreement ever signed between—
NARRATOR: And then the handshake, an image that would become iconic.
SAEB EREKAT: These hands that shook knew nothing but to shoot— the trigger, the bullets, the bombs, the fight. And the question to me is, can this handshake lead to the culture in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis that coexistence is possible, that peace is possible, to live and let live?
NARRATOR: Now in Israel, Netanyahu was building a coalition of the ultra-religious right and security-minded conservatives. They strongly opposed the Oslo agreement. And in no time, protests began.
MARTIN INDYK, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, 1995-97: The world celebrated that handshake, that historic handshake on the White House lawn. But in Israel, there was a fair degree of skepticism.
NARRATOR: Week after week, Netanyahu watched the protests build.
SANDY BERGER: The people on the right in Israel were not happy about the Oslo process. And recognizing the PLO, the terrorists, was a bitter pill.
PROTESTER: We’re demonstrating against the inability of the government to maintain order in this country and to protect the rights of Jews living in their own land!
NARRATOR: With an election on the horizon, Netanyahu maneuvered the growing anger into a political force.
MARVIN KALB, Author, The Road to War: He did not believe in the possibility of a deal with the Palestinians. He didn’t trust them. He didn’t like them, he doesn’t, and he doesn’t want to have a deal with them. He didn’t want to have a deal with them.
NARRATOR: As head of the conservative Likud party, Netanyahu himself became the face of the opposition to Oslo.
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The Atlantic: Netanyahu saw a moment of betrayal and peril and an agreement that would never and could never work.
DENNIS ROSS: There’s a really ugly character to it. The level of vitriol, the anger, the scope of these demonstrations, the kind of incitement, the portrayal of Rabin, dressing Rabin in Nazi uniforms or putting a keffiyah on him.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu found himself at the center of the anger.
DAN EPHRON, Author, Killing a King: In most cases, he doesn’t do anything about it. I think Netanyahu even in some ways benefits from this association with the rabble rousers on the right.
DORE GOLD, Netanyahu Adviser: I think the country’s political system was superheated. It was like a car riding on a highway that had no water left in the radiator. And you could look at the temperature gauge, and it’s all the way in the— in the hot.
NARRATOR: The intensity grew, culminating in a massive protest, tens of thousands crammed into the center of Jerusalem.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [subtitles] For we will never allow Jerusalem to be divided again, the eternal capital of the Jewish people!
CHEMI SHALEV, Reporter, Ha'aretz: He was genuinely outraged, but he knew how to channel that outrage. And that coincided with his rise to power.
NARRATOR: In Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, there was concern about the growing tension in the crowds that night.
DAVID REMNICK: There were moments when Netanyahu was advised that, you know, there are real nutcases in the national religious camp that we see, that we need to calm down, even gesturally.
PROTESTERS: [subtitles] In blood and fire, we will expel Rabin!
DAVID REMNICK: Netanyahu never did that. He never did that, to his enormous discredit.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [subtitles] We have no other country! [cheers]
NARRATOR: The crowd was with him as he attacked Arafat—
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [subtitles] The murderer Arafat— [cheers]
NARRATOR: —and then the government of Yitzhak Rabin.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [subtitles] I’m saying this to the government of Israel which is bowing down to this man. We are here for we will never allow Jerusalem to be divided!
RONEN BERGMAN, Israeli Journalist: All Likud leaders, especially Benjamin Netanyahu, they have used very strong language against Prime Minister Rabin.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [subtitles] We are here because we have only one Jerusalem and we will defend her!
RONEN BERGMAN: They didn’t use any kind of condemnation against the violence that was starting to take place.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu would later say he never saw the ugliest moments that night. Throughout Israel, the anger boiled over.
CHEMI SHALEV: I was there and a lot of other people my age were there. This was such a volatile atmosphere at the time. And the writing was on the wall.
NARRATOR: Night after night, the crowds massed across the street from Prime Minister Rabin’s apartment in Tel Aviv.
DENNIS ROSS, Middle East envoy, 1993-2001: I’m there one Shabbat evening. We’re talking. And it’s just the two of us. And there’s a demonstration outside. And I said to him at the time, I said, “Don’t you worry about some of this?” And he goes, “No.” I mean, he was— it’s not that he was— you know, it’s not that he was completely dismissive of it, but he took it as kind of a given. He knew, in a sense, what was coming and simply accepted it.
NARRATOR: Rabin responded with his own rally, more than 100,000 supporters singing of peace. Then as Rabin was leaving— that’s him coming down the ramp— the man in the blue T-shirt approached— three shots from behind.
NEWSCASTER: The Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the Middle East peace process, has been assassinated.
NARRATOR: The assassin, a right-wing Israeli Jew, Yigal Amir.
NEWSCASTER: Truly shocking news from the Middle East tonight. Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has been assassinated.
NEWSCASTER: An evening spent dreaming of peace turned into a national nightmare.
NARRATOR: Outside the hospital, the crowd began to chant “Bibi is a murderer.” The sign says, “Bibi, Rabin’s blood is on your hands.”
NEWSCASTER: An assassin has taken yet another world leader away from us. It was just after the biggest peace rally in Tel Aviv—
NARRATOR: Rabin’s widow blamed Netanyahu for contributing to her husband’s death—
NEWSCASTER: —of Yitzhak Rabin has also produced shock in the Palestinian community—
NARRATOR: —and said so on worldwide television.
INTERVIEWER: Your husband pointed the finger at Mr. Netanyahu and said, “You must stop this incitement.” To what extent do you blame Mr. Netanyahu and the Likud for what has happened?
LEAH RABIN: I do blame them. The rally in Jerusalem that showed him in the uniform of a Nazi— so Mr. Bibi Netanyahu, now we can say from here to eternity that you didn’t support it and didn’t agree with it, but he was there and he didn’t stop it.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu’s close adviser at the time vehemently disagrees.
EYAL ARAD, Netanyahu Adviser, 1984-96: The attempt to pin on him the murder of the prime minister is a cheap political propaganda trick that was taken by his political opponents, mostly from the left, in order to delegitimatize Netanyahu as the political public and to delegitimatize the positions of Likud in the Israeli open political debate.
NARRATOR: As the nation mourned, Bibi Netanyahu faced the political consequences of Rabin’s death. The American ambassador says they spoke about it the day before the funeral.
MARTIN INDYK, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, 1995-97: I remember Netanyahu saying to me, “Look,” you know, “Look at this. He’s a hero now. But if he had not been assassinated, I would have beaten him in the elections, and then he would have gone into history as a failed politician.”
Netanyahu was thinking, well, politically, he was on the ropes before he was assassinated.
Editor’s Note 1/10/15: This scene has been updated to make it clear that former Ambassador Indyk says this exchange occurred at the Israeli Knesset where Rabin's body would lie in state the day before the funeral.
NARRATOR: And Netanyahu had a new and powerful opponent, the American president.
CHEMI SHALEV, Reporter, Ha’aretz: President Clinton was really affected by Rabin’s assassination. And he viewed, I think, Netanyahu through the eyes of Rabin as the person who would bring down Oslo if given half a chance.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: Your prime minister was a martyr for peace, but he was a victim of hate. Surely, we must learn from his martyrdom that if people cannot let go of the hatred of their enemies, they risk sowing the seeds of hatred among themselves.
MARTIN INDYK: He felt a real responsibility to Rabin, a personal responsibility to see through his legacy. And the Oslo accords was Rabin’s legacy.
NARRATOR: But Rabin’s legacy was in jeopardy. His successor, Shimon Peres, would have to win an election, and that meant facing Bibi Netanyahu.
DENNIS ROSS: Bibi in the election is running against Oslo. So the choice seems so clear. Clinton wants to do everything we can to help Peres, and he probably goes overboard in terms of that.
SANDY BERGER, Clinton Natl. Security Adviser: I mean, if ever there was a time where we tried to influence an Israeli election, it was Peres versus Netanyahu.
NARRATOR: Clinton’s political operatives opened a back channel with the Peres campaign. Clinton authorized hundreds of millions in additional military aid and returned to Israel to personally campaign for Shimon Peres.
EYAL ARAD: Israelis loved Clinton. If he ran here for prime minister, he would win easily, no matter under which banner. Israelis loved Clinton, Bill Clinton.
NARRATOR: A week after the assassination, Netanyahu was behind in the polls by 31 points.
CHEMI SHALEV: People spoke to him in those days have said that he thought that his career was over.
NARRATOR: Then as election day neared—
NEWSCASTER: Ten kilograms of explosives destroyed this commuter bus into a charred skeleton.
NARRATOR: It was the Number 18 bus, right through the heart of Jerusalem, a symbolic act. The Palestinian extremist group Hamas claimed responsibility.
SAEB EREKAT, Chief Palestinian Negotiator: There were some Palestinian groups trying to make sure that— sabotaging of the peace process. “Rabin was assassinated, let us stop the whole process.”
NARRATOR: And it was just the beginning.
ARI SHAVIT, Author, My Promised Land: It’s easy to forget that, actually, Rabin’s great, heroic act ended up with terror in our streets and people dying, and we all were driven nuts by— you know, you had peace ceremonies one day and terror the other day. And it drove people crazy.
NARRATOR: For Netanyahu, it was an opening.
CHEMI SHALEV: And so Netanyahu is naturally returned to center stage as the person who had warned about, you know, terrorism and slowly starts to recover.
NEWSCASTER: This morning, the sound of sirens again interrupted the morning commute.
NARRATOR: Six days later, the Number 18 bus again.
NEWSCASTER: Police combed the hellish wreckage.
NEWSCASTER: Victims were hurled from the demolished bus. Only body parts could be recovered.
NARRATOR: Over nine days, four bombs, 59 dead, hundreds injured.
NEWSCASTER: —did not, could not believe the morning news, another bloody Sunday.
NEWSCASTER: A suicide bomber has once again blown up—
EYAL ARAD: And Israelis lost faith in the process, in that process. One of the slogans that came from grass roots was, “This peace is killing us.”
NEWSCASTER: “Peres go home,” screamed these Jews opposed to the peace process. They taunted him, chanting the name of the Prime Minister Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir.
PROTESTERS: Yigal Amir! Yigal Amir! Yigal Amir!
DORE GOLD, Netanyahu Adviser: I will never forget this. In Tel Aviv once, there was a horrible terrorist bombing. And I drove by about three days afterwards and somebody had written graffiti on the wall, and they wrote, “The Likud was right.”
NARRATOR: Netanyahu started to climb in the polls.
RONEN BERGMAN, Israeli Journalist: He was able to speak to the masses and translate the horror of suicide bombers into political power and say, “I will be able to solve this. I am strong. I come from military background. I have the experience and the spirit to stop suicide bombers.”
NARRATOR: But by midnight on election day, it looked like Netanyahu’s surge had fallen short.
CHEMI SHALEV: The entire country went to sleep convinced that Peres had been elected and woke up with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
NEWSCASTER: The Arab world and the United States will now have to deal with a much more conservative—
NARRATOR: Netanyahu had promised security to the growing number of Israelis scarred by the violence. It worked, barely.
NEWSCASTER: —Shimon Peres was a mere fraction of 1 percent.
DORE GOLD: I walk into his suite at about 5:30 in the morning, and basically, I didn’t leave it. He said, “You, you, you”— all three or four of us were there. “You’re the core team.” And that’s how it officially started.
July 9, 1996
NEWSCASTER: Netanyahu is on the way to the United States for his first visit since becoming Israel’s prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu’s dealings with the president of the United States will be of intense interest among Arabs who have already—
NARRATOR: Just over one month later, Prime Minister Netanyahu was at the White House—
NEWSCASTER: President Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu will hold a joint news conference after—
NARRATOR: —waiting, alone, for a face-to-face meeting with Bill Clinton.
MARVIN KALB, Author, The Road to War: When he came in as prime minister to meet the president of the United States, he knew that he was dealing with another young guy just as smart as he was. But as president of the United States, Clinton had his set of responsibilities. Netanyahu, as an Israeli leader, has his responsibilities. And they were in collision.
MARTIN INDYK: They were of very different minds. Bibi had just been elected. The president had intervened against him. There was a kind of— you know, not a very good way to start a meeting.
NARRATOR: Behind closed doors, Clinton would demand Netanyahu continue the Oslo peace process and personally meet with Yasser Arafat. It didn’t take long for the meeting to become contentious.
DENNIS ROSS: He came in pretty full of himself. And he was pretty much telling the president how to deal with the Arabs. He understood how to deal with the Arabs.
SANDY BERGER: His sort of posture was, “Let me tell you about the Middle East.” And then he proceeded to lecture the president on the realities of the Middle East. “Here’s the way it is.”
NARRATOR: Netanyahu did not hold back on his feelings about Oslo.
MARTIN INDYK: Netanyahu wanted to make clear that, you know, even though the previous government had signed the agreement, that he had some real reservations about it. And so that— that’s why it got off to a bad start.
DENNIS ROSS: And so, you know, when the meeting’s over, Clinton turns and he says, “Who does he think the superpower is?”
NARRATOR: But Clinton wouldn’t give up on the peace agreements, and Netanyahu couldn’t ignore him. The U. S. was Israel’s biggest supporter.
DAN EPHRON, Author, Killing a King: And I think there’s a moment where Netanyahu has to decide. Can he try to block the actual implementation of the agreement but concede some things that Clinton was pressing for in terms of an on-camera, for instance, handshake with Arafat? I think that was the calculation.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu decided to go along with one key Clinton demand. He drove 50 miles to the border of Palestinian territory in Gaza. At the Erez crossing, he met his enemy, Yasser Arafat.
SAEB EREKAT, Chief Palestinian Negotiator: And that day, I was there. And I was thinking, “How will this happen?” I was trying to do whatever I can to make sure that if needs to, I will employ every damage control mechanism, every crisis management, everything.
NARRATOR: It was a meeting Netanyahu had insisted would never happen.
TZACHI HANEGBI, Netanyahu Adviser: Very, very hard. Very hard. He swore he would never shake Arafat’s hand.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: He is, in some ways, in many ways, a reality-based politician. He had to meet with Arafat. He had to work within the context that Rabin created, but he didn’t want to work within the context Rabin had created.
NARRATOR: Bill Clinton got what he wanted, the handshake. Netanyahu said he feared his father would disapprove of the gesture. But once started, the handshakes just kept on coming.
And he took other steps. He pulled Israeli troops out of the West Bank city of Hebron and signed a treaty agreeing to further implement Oslo. But close observers say he was slow-walking the peace process.
ARI SHAVIT: Netanyahu made life very, very difficult for the American administration and for those Israelis who wanted peace. He was really difficult. He was slow. He was stubborn. He made life very difficult for all the peaceniks, Americans, Europeans and Israelis.
NARRATOR: And behind the scenes at one peace conference, Bill Clinton let Bibi Netanyahu know how frustrated he was.
SAEB EREKAT: One morning, I think it was 4:00 A.M. in the morning, I hear shouting, real shouting, screaming, 4:00 A.M. in the morning, President Clinton shouting from the depth of his stomach and head and ears and eyes and nose and mouth and legs at Bibi Netanyahu.
NARRATOR: Erekat and others say Bibi’s maneuvers could be maddening.
SAEB EREKAT: I’ve seen the frustration of many people. I’ve seen the frustration of Israeli negotiators. I’ve seen the frustration of American presidents. I’ve seen my frustration.
NARRATOR: Before long, Netanyahu’s political support began to erode.
CHEMI SHALEV, Reporter, Ha’aretz: Nobody was happy with him. The left weren’t happy with him for what he was doing to undermine Oslo, and the right wasn’t happy with him for what he was doing to keep Oslo. He was in this sort of impossible balancing act.
PROTESTER: [subtitles] This is Adolf Hitler. He’s the same as Adolf Hitler.
DORE GOLD, Netanyahu Adviser: At that point, the prime minister’s conservative base folds, and some people on the conservative right work with the Israeli left to bring down Prime Minister Netanyahu.
May 17, 1999
NARRATOR: By election night, it was clear Netanyahu was headed to a decisive defeat to Ehud Barak.
DANA WEISS, Channel 2, Israel: I remember that night of the elections. You know, it was a total disaster. He stood up and said, “I’m taking time off from politics.” And I remember saying, “OK, we’re not going to see him again.”
NEWSCASTER: —summit at Camp David, a summit the Clinton administration—
NARRATOR: Now with Netanyahu out of the picture, Bill Clinton tried to personally push through a final peace deal.
NEWSCASTER: The summit has been declared make or break, and that seems to be—
NARRATOR: At Camp David, he brought together Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for the high-stakes negotiation. But coming to any agreement proved elusive.
MARTIN INDYK, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, 1995-97: Barak made a far-reaching offer, I think, went further than he was planning to do. But for Arafat, it was unacceptable.
DENNIS ROSS, Middle East Envoy, 1993-2001: And he said, “If I accept this, you’ll be— do you want to walk behind my casket?” That’s what he said.
NARRATOR: Among the most contentious issues, the future of Jerusalem.
ARI SHAVIT, Author, My Promised Land: Ehud Barak comes with the help of the American team and a lot of American support. And Barak does everything. He is a courageous guy— a bit too courageous, but he tries everything. And boom! It explodes. And there’s no Netanyahu around. You cannot blame— when the Camp David peace summit fails, no, Netanyahu is not there.
NARRATOR: Palestinians launched a new round of violence, a sustained uprising, the Intifada.
DIANA BUTTU, Palestinian Negotiator: Palestinians were fed up. There were years of failed negotiations. Security for them went backwards. Freedom of movement went backwards. Freedom of religion went backwards. The economy went backwards. And there was a point at which Palestinians said, “Enough. We are done with this process of negotiations.” And so everything unravels. Everything unravels.
NARRATOR: Amid the turmoil, Netanyahu worked at rebuilding his political support and found a receptive audience.
ELLIOT ABRAMS, National Security Council, 2002-09: The conclusion on the Israeli right certainly is, “This is what you get for weakness.” This view spreads from the Israeli right really rather more broadly in Israeli society, the view that there’s no partner for peace.
NARRATOR: To his supporters, the continuing violence seemed to be evidence that Netanyahu should be returned to power.
TZACHI HANEGBI, Netanyahu Adviser: We warned beforehand that this is exactly what’s going to happen. If you put yourself to be in a situation that the other side sees you as such a weak leader, the result is not going to be reconciliation. It’s not going to be a historic shift, metamorphosis of the Palestinians. It’s going to be war.
NARRATOR: As he rebuilt his political coalition, Netanyahu would watch as terror struck beyond the Middle East.
NEWSCASTER: —an apparent terrorist attack—
NEWSCASTER: A very large plane just flew directly over my building, and there’s been another collision.
NEWSCASTER: September 11th, the year 2001, is a day unlike any other—
NARRATOR: Muslim extremists struck America.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you, and the rest of the world hears you!
NARRATOR: A new American president used rhetoric that would resonate with Netanyahu’s view of the world.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: There’s no neutral ground in the fight between civilization and terror because there is no neutral ground between good and evil.
NARRATOR: And in Israel, the violence continued as even more efforts at peace collapsed.
NEWSCASTER: Another suicide bomb, more violence and death—
NARRATOR: By 2008, Netanyahu was on the rise—
NEWSCASTER: One Israeli air strike hit the home of a Hamas member—
NARRATOR: —once again the head of Likud and preparing to run for prime minister.
NEWSCASTER: —reporting here, there’s been a bloody and violent—
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The New Yorker: The political culture has shifted. In fact, he is one of the main political forces that helped move the entire Israeli political spectrum to the right.
DANA WEISS: He is a great politician, and he has understood the DNA of the Israeli public. He understands that you have to look them in the eye and you have to say, “I’ll keep you safe.”
NARRATOR: By that summer, he was ahead in the polls. And as his advisers began to prepare for the future, they say they were worrying about a different election. In America, it looked like the Democrat might win.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Candidate: Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up!
DAVID REMNICK: Barack Obama came pretty much out of nowhere. He was a senator for 10-and-a-half minutes, and suddenly, he was running for president. This a pretty alien creature to Netanyahu and to a lot of Israelis.
NARRATOR: They met in Jerusalem in the summer of 2008.
DORE GOLD: And I was at the first meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, before each was elected. And what I sensed were two individuals who come from different parts of the political spectrum, one very liberal in his foreign policy assumptions, the other conservative, national-security oriented.
NARRATOR: And Netanyahu himself was concerned.
MARVIN KALB, Author, The Road to War: I happened to be on a reporting trip in Jerusalem, and I went into the coffee shop at the King David Hotel. There was one other person there, and it was Netanyahu sitting in a corner by himself reading newspapers.
There was one thing on his mind— “Who is this guy, Obama? Who is he? What is he really like?” And he wanted very much to point out to me, as if I didn’t know it, that Obama’s middle name was Hussein and that his father was a Muslim. What kind of objectivity could this man bring to bear on Israel?
January 20, 2009
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear—
NEWSCASTER: It’s inauguration day for the nation’s first African-American president. Hundreds of thousands of people—
NARRATOR: The new American president’s first moves would do little to reassure Netanyahu.
NEWSCASTER: He spoke of no less than remaking America.
NARRATOR: In his inaugural address, Barack Obama reached out directly to Muslims.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
SANDY BERGER, National Security Adviser, 1997-2001: He very much wanted to break certainly with the Bush legacy, from the Iraq war, and maybe a longer legacy of America’s estrangement from the Arab world, from the Muslim world, as he would call it.
NARRATOR: On his first day in office, he set a new tone. His first phone call to Yasser Arafat’s successor, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
DIANA BUTTU, Palestinian Negotiator: He started off by sending the right signals to Palestinians. And I found that very sincere because he didn’t need to make that phone call.
NARRATOR: Later, his first television interview, he chose an Arab TV network.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries. My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world.
NARRATOR: And he decided to send a signal to Palestinians and Israelis. He wanted to restart the peace process.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: History shows us that strong and sustained American engagement can bridge divides and build the capacity that supports progress.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: I think Obama really believed in 2009 that he could sit down with rational people and come up with a rational solution. “All we have to do is get them together, and of course we can settle this thing. We all know it can be settled. I can be the one to do it.”
NARRATOR: Obama had built his political career on his ability to bridge differences.
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Adviser, 2009-11: The history of Obama is a belief in his own ability to bring people of disparate views and cultures and backgrounds together to solve difficult problems.
Mayor HAROLD WASHINGTON, Chicago: Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Jews—
NARRATOR: In his 20s, Obama had started his political education in Chicago not long after the city had elected its first black mayor, Harold Washington.
Mayor HAROLD WASHINGTON: —have joined hands to form a new Democratic coalition!
PETER BEINART, Author, The Crisis of Zionism: Washington’s election really is Chicago’s version of the Civil Rights movement. And like the larger Civil Rights movement, it is an alliance in many ways between African-Americans and a lot of progressive Jews.
NARRATOR: As a candidate, Obama forged an alliance with the city’s powerful progressive Jews.
DAVID AXELROD: Obama identifies with the Jewish community as the community that stood with the African-American community in those very difficult fights back in the ‘60s.
NARRATOR: Newton Minow and Judge Abner Mikva were two of his closest Jewish supporters.
Rabbi RACHEL MIKVA, Daughter of Abner Mikva: He bonded with these leaders in the Jewish community here because they shared this powerful commitment to social justice work. And my father describes Barack Obama as having a Yiddish “neshama,” a Jewish soul.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: The man has been surrounded by Jewish influences— the law professors, the law colleagues, the fellow community organizers, his early backers in Chicago. And he has a vision of an idealized Israel. Israel, you know, this chance to get it right to build a nation state, but to do it right, in a progressive way.
NARRATOR: He would be elected with more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote. Many of them shared his belief that Israelis and Palestinians could sit down and resolve their differences.
DAVID REMNICK: By and large, their politics was liberal, progressive. And that extended not only to their views of say, social policy in the United States or any other issue, but also having to do with Israel.
NARRATOR: It was a vision that was very much at odds with what Benzion Netanyahu had taught his son.
PETER BEINART: What Obama is admiring in the Jewish tradition and in the Jews that he knows is exactly what Netanyahu fears. It is the sense that Jews have this instinct towards making the world better, that may make them, in Netanyahu’s eyes, too idealistic to deal with the actual threats that they really face, especially in a place like the Middle East.
ARI SHAVIT, Author, My Promised Land: And the deeper clash here is really, if you wish, like between two versions of Judaism. One is the universalist, liberal, progressive Judaism, and one is the under siege fortress Judaism which Netanyahu is all about.
NARRATOR: And now as president, Obama sought to make those progressive ideals a reality, doing what no other president had done, creating peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
DENNIS ROSS, Natl. Security Council, 2009-11: I think, in a lot of ways, the president and the people around him were caught up with Obama being a transformative figure. They were caught up in the moment that he represented such a transformation, such a change, and that that in itself had a kind of power and it created a kind of leverage. And I think it created a set of expectations about what they could produce as a result.
NARRATOR: To help bridge the differences between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama turned to veteran conflict negotiator George Mitchell.
GEORGE MITCHELL, Middle East Envoy, 2009-11: Just 48 hours after he had been inaugurated as president, he said to me, “I’m serious about this. I want to do something. And I want you to go there right away as an indication of my seriousness.” I said, “Well, I can’t leave tonight,” I said, “because I’ve got to go home and pack a bag.” But I left a couple days later.
NEWSCASTER: Sirens warn of another round of Israeli—
NARRATOR: But on the ground in Israel, Mitchell quickly found that Obama’s hopes did not match the stark reality. In Gaza, the extremist group Hamas was in charge.
NEWSCASTER: —Hamas security forces the target in a third day of Israeli missile strikes in Gaza.
GEORGE MITCHELL: But the timing for the potential for success in early 2009 could not have been worse. President Obama was sworn in just four days after the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas had come to a conclusion. Emotions were very high and very negative. There was a lot of hostility, a lot of feelings of victimization on both sides. The circumstances were not conducive to moving forward.
NEWSCASTER: —Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have locked up the prime minister’s office.
NARRATOR: And there was a political challenge. Israel elected a new prime minister. Now Barack Obama would have to deal with Bibi Netanyahu.
ARI SHAVIT: They are completely opposites because it’s deep. It’s not only a progressive and a conservative. Barack Obama has Martin Luther King in him. He has Nelson Mandela. The world is moving in the right direction, and his role is to accelerate that. And Netanyahu is profoundly a pessimist, profoundly. So it’s not only a clash between the progressive and the conservative, it’s a clash between the optimist and the pessimist.
NARRATOR: At the White House, the president’s staff were anxious about Netanyahu’s victory. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of President Clinton’s clashes with Netanyahu, warned Obama.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Rahm Emanuel in particular has these vivid memories of Netanyahu trying to push around Bill Clinton, and comes to Obama, essentially, and says, “We’re not going to do that over again. Don’t get played by this guy. This guy is going to do X, Y, and Z, and we’re not going to allow him to play his game.”
DENNIS ROSS: And so there was an instinctive feeling that Bibi will never do what he needs to do unless you pressure him. And I think that was basically Rahm’s attitude. At least, it’s the way I understood Rahm’s attitude.
NARRATOR: The strategy would be to show the Arab world that Obama could take a hard line on Israel, could create some daylight.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, that’s the expression, “daylight,” the imposing of daylight in the relationship. There’s a belief that you win friends in the Arab world by distancing yourself from Israel.
NARRATOR: That May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: All right, everybody. Just tell me when everybody’s set up. Great. Well, listen, I first of all want to thank Prime Minister Netanyahu for making this visit—
PETER BEINART: Obama is in the difficult position of dealing with an Israeli prime minister who has now, from the American point of view, regressed to the point of view where it’s hard to see how you’re going to have any meaningful negotiation with the Palestinians.
NARRATOR: Obama insisted that Netanyahu stop the construction of Jewish settlements on lands captured in the ‘67 War which were claimed by the Palestinians.
CHEMI SHALEV, Reporter, Ha’aretz: It wasn’t a request, it was a demand. And I think that this shocked Netanyahu, shocked the people around Netanyahu, and gave proof to the people who had been whispering in Netanyahu’s ears that this guy is up to no good.
NARRATOR: A settlement freeze, a recurring demand of American presidents, but it was a deal-breaker for the right flank of Netanyahu’s fragile political coalition.
SANDY BERGER, Fmr. National Security Adviser: The freeze notion was a difficult one. So it had a very sharp point, and it came at Israel in the first instance with a knife.
DENNIS ROSS: Netanyahu is surprised by that and feels that in a sense, he’s kind of walked into a trap.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: Netanyahu found that outrageous. Palestinians weren’t doing anything, as far as he was concerned, so why should he? So there’s already some real scratchiness there over what Obama expected Israel to do and what Israel expected out of Obama.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: It will not be easy. It never has been easy.
NARRATOR: And in front of the press, Obama doubled down, making the demand in public.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: —saying publicly what I said privately, that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that. But it’s an important one and it has to be addressed.
NARRATOR: For Netanyahu, his first meeting with the president couldn’t have gone worse.
CHEMI SHALEV: I think Netanyahu recognized in Obama suddenly a person who was hell-bent on setting up a Palestinian state.
TZACHI HANEGBI, Netanyahu Adviser: And I remember him coming back from his first meeting with President Obama, something that tells him that it’s going to be a different president, super-intelligent lawyer who is probably a brilliant, brilliant man. He has ideas . He has goals. He has a vision and something in what we in Hebrew call a “neshama.” The soul is too cold to be connected to Israel.
ARI SHAVIT, Author, My Promised Land: Whatever happened in that traumatic meeting, he came back angry, suspicious, hostile. He came back from Washington feeling that he is at war, that he is under siege. And that shaped the entire relationship because people like Netanyahu, you don’t get a second chance.
NARRATOR: The president of the United States was now an adversary.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama today delivers one of the most important speeches of his young administration—
NARRATOR: Two weeks later—
NEWSCASTER: —a major speech to reach out to the Muslim world.
NARRATOR: —the Obama campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world continued.
NEWSCASTER: The president turns his attention to a much larger Arab audience in Cairo and beyond.
PHILIP GORDON, State Dept., 2009-13: The speech was to try to reset relations with the Muslim world and send a message that the United States was not anti-Muslim.
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
NARRATOR: During his first days in office, he had signaled a change in tone. With the Netanyahu meeting, he had tried to show he could get tough with Israel. And now in Egypt, he would personally make the case.
MARVIN KALB, Author, The Road to War: He believed that he could make an overture to the Muslim world and the Muslim world would believe him. He meant to be a good soldier, a good guy, a middleman, an honest broker, an American president you could deal with, an American who is sympathetic to you.
NARRATOR: It was billed as an unprecedented address to the world’s one-and-a-half billion Muslims.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.
NARRATOR: But Israelis were watching, too. Among them, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
MICHAEL OREN, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., 2009-13: It’s the first time, to my knowledge, as a— as a historian that a president of the United States addresses the world adherents of one faith.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: So let there be no doubt, the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.
MICHAEL OREN: Israel had no advance warning of the Cairo speech— complete shock. And there are many aspects of the speech which have direct impact on Israel, the most obvious of which is the condemnation of settlements.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. It is time for these settlements to stop.
DANA WEISS, Channel 2, Israel: He addressed the Palestinian issue in a way that was not a political issue, but a just issue. And I think that was a hard point for the Israeli public to swallow.
NARRATOR: For many of the Israelis watching, the message was clear.
TZIPI LIVNI, Foreign Minister, Israel, 2006-09: We live in a world of images and perceptions. And for some, it gave the impression that in choosing between Israel and the Muslim world, the choice was the Muslim world.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: And may God’s peace be upon you. Thank you very much. [cheers]
MARTIN INDYK, Fmr. U.S. Ambassador to Israel: Immediately after the speech, I remember talking to an Israeli journalist, a very senior journalist whom the White House cleverly had invited to Cairo to hear the speech. And he called me from Cairo. He said, “This is a disaster. This is a disaster.” I said, “Tell Rahm. Tell him because, you know, they need to do something about this. This is really going to lose the Israelis.”
NARRATOR: The president then left the Middle East. To the surprise of many, he did not stop over in Israel.
NEWSCASTER: —soaking it in, the message of Barack Obama’s historic speech in Egypt.
MARVIN KALB: Worse than anything, while he was there, a 45-minute plane ride to Israel, he didn’t stop there. He just went on his way.
DANA WEISS: The Israelis were insulted. I mean, you’re coming into the neighborhood, can’t you drop in for coffee? We’re just so close. I mean, Cairo, Tel Aviv? Come on, say hello. We’ll be nice to you!
MARTIN INDYK: Don’t forget, he went to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. He didn’t go to Israel. For Israelis, the combination of not visiting and the speech sent them a very strong signal that he didn’t like them.
NARRATOR: The decision to skip Israel had been advocated by the president’s senior foreign policy advisers.
DENNIS ROSS, Natl. Security Council, 2009-11: Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough strongly argued against going to Israel because it would look like business as usual. And if he was going to show it was different this time, he had to act in a way that was different this time. He had to break the mold. That was the reason.
NARRATOR: Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes insists it was the right move.
BEN RHODES: I’ve lived in this job for seven years and have learned repeatedly that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Frankly, I see it as a lose-lose proposition. Whatever we were going to do was not going to be the right thing for this particular Israeli government.
NARRATOR: Other Obama advisers now admit it was a mistake.
GEORGE MITCHELL, Middle East Envoy, 2009-11: I personally think it would have been wise had the president gone on to Israel from there and made a comparable statement of reassurance.
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Adviser, 2009-11: I regret that. I think if I were— if we were to do that all over again, I think we should have added a stop there.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu capitalized on Obama’s decision not to stop in Israel.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister, in a way, to run against an American president, to sort of go to his base and say, “You got to vote for me because I can keep this American president at bay.”
NARRATOR: Right-wing newspapers fanned the flames, increasingly portraying the president as an enemy of Israel.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: The messaging has been consistent that this guy is a danger to us, and the only thing stopping him from having his way with Israel is Benjamin Netanyahu.
NARRATOR: Obama’s reputation took a hit. Just 6 percent of Jewish Israelis said they considered him pro-Israel.
DAN EPHRON, Journalist: Obama is very unpopular in Israel, and he’s the first American president in a very long time to be very unpopular. We talk how popular Clinton was. That’s not the case for Obama.
MARTIN INDYK: Once he lost the Israelis, he couldn’t move the Israelis because he didn’t have the trust that Clinton had.
SANDY BERGER, Fmr. Natl. Security Adviser: Netanyahu figured out that he had the backing of his people, the backing of his government. He was perfectly comfortable to stand still.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama immediately dispatching his special envoy, George Mitchell—
NEWSCASTER: Peace envoy George Mitchell has been sent to Israel in hopes of—
NARRATOR: Despite the obstacles, Obama sent his envoy, George Mitchell, to Israel 19 times over two years.
NEWSCASTER: George Mitchell says that he will be going back to the region in the next few days.
NARRATOR: Hundreds of meetings. It was tough going.
NEWSCASTER: George Mitchell has been to the Middle East many times.
NARRATOR: Neither side was ready to do a deal
NEWSCASTER: —Mitchell back again in Israel—
NARRATOR: Mitchell gave up. He submitted his letter of resignation in 2011.
GEORGE MITCHELL: I withdrew. I concluded that the level of mistrust between both societies made it highly unlikely that they would be able to overcome that level of mistrust and reach agreement.
NARRATOR: The president had lost his point man, and his Middle East policy was in trouble.
DAVID SANGER, The New York Times: The president asked his staff for a report card about how well they had done on executing on the 2009 speech, and it was basically a series of Ds and Fs. They had done an extremely poor job.
NARRATOR: And there was mounting criticism by Jews in Israel and America.
DAVID AXELROD: You know, I remember a time when I worked in the White House and I went to find the president, and he was just staring into space. He was very contemplative. I said, “What’s on your mind?” And he said, “You know, I think I’m the closest thing to a Jew who’s ever sat in this office. You know, I feel very close to the community, and it hurts to be depicted somehow as hostile to the community. It bothers me.”
NARRATOR: Then this man in Tunisia lit himself on fire.
DENNIS ROSS, Natl. Security Council, 2009-11: Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, and within a very short period of time, you know, he sets the Middle East on fire.
NEWSCASTER: Thousands of angry demonstrators marched through the streets of Tunisia’s capital this morning.
NEWSCASTER: —tracking this very serious development—
NARRATOR: Within weeks, protests had broken out in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya. And in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, hundreds of thousands turned out to protest President Hosni Mubarak. At the White House, President Barack Obama watched the protests on television.
PETER BEINART, Author, The Crisis of Zionism: When Obama sees these insurrections in North Africa and the Middle East, he is very excited by them.
DENNIS ROSS: Now, suddenly, it looks like the forces of history are in the squares, not in the presidential palaces. And now the president wants to be on the right side of history.
NARRATOR: For three decades, Mubarak had been an American ally.
DAN EPHRON: The Arab street is rising up against these dictators, and I think Obama faced this moment, this decision.
PETER BEINART: Obama is very enthusiastic about what’s happening in Tahrir Square, more than many people in his own cabinet, and he wants to put America on the side of that.
NARRATOR: The president decided to get involved. He would tell Mubarak to leave.
DENNIS ROSS: I was with him in the Oval Office when he does this phone call to Mubarak. He was trying to nudge Mubarak in a certain direction, and Mubarak was in a state of complete denial. Mubarak is telling the president, “You don’t understand. I understand my people.”
NARRATOR: And in front of the cameras, Obama repeated his demand.
February 1, 2011
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Good morning, everybody. Over the past few days, the American people have watched the situation unfolding in Egypt. What is clear — and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak — is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now. Thank you very much.
NARRATOR: He had issued his ultimatum. In Israel, Netanyahu expressed amazement at what Obama had done.
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The New Yorker: The Arab Spring is a perfect example of where Netanyahu believes that Obama was colossally naive.
NARRATOR: Israel had made peace with some of its Arab neighbors, including Egypt. Now Netanyahu was worried those regimes would fall to Muslim extremists.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Netanyahu’s reaction was the tragic realist reaction, which is, “This ain’t going to work out, guys. Democracy’s not going to take root. You’re going to have the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo in a year or two.”
MICHAEL OREN, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., 2009-13: Israelis are slapping their heads and saying, “Oh, my God, what a disaster,” because what they see is not an outbreaking of democracy, they see an outbreaking of chaos that’s going to be quickly snatched and dominated by Islamic extremists.
NARRATOR: At the time, Dan Meridor was the deputy prime minister.
DAN MERIDOR, Dep. Prime Minister, Israel, 2009-13: The quick pace with which the American administration started to push Mubarak off the cliff — “He has to go, he has to go now, he has to go now” — amazed me. The thinking that if Mubarak is out, a new Thomas Jefferson is going to be born on the Nile and build a new republic was miserably naive.
NEWSCASTER: President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down.
NEWSCASTER: The sound of freedom—
NARRATOR: Ten days after Obama’s phone call, Mubarak resigned.
NEWSCASTER: Tonight, the people of Egypt have toppled their leader.
DAN MERIDOR: When he fell, I think that the amazement of Mubarak and his people that America deserted them openly, and the amazement of many allies of America, leaders in the region, that America seemed not to be a reliable ally and pushes you when they need it least, not to interfere— I think this was a big mistake.
NARRATOR: At the White House, the president seized the moment. Obama wanted a “reset” of his approach to the Middle East. He told his staff to prepare a new speech.
BEN RHODES, Dep. National Security Adviser: The president wanted to speak and lay out what the U.S. principles were going to be as we dealt with a region that was going through seismic change.
ANNOUNCER: The president of the United States, Barack Obama.
NARRATOR: He delivered the speech in front of a room filled with staffers at the State Department.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.
NARRATOR: He spoke for nearly an hour, but the speech would be remembered for just one line.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.
NARRATOR: It was a familiar demand, but one never endorsed so publicly by the president of the United States.
MICHAEL OREN: And it became a headline. The headline in The New York Times was, “President Obama endorses the ‘67 borders.” The rest of the speech, about the Arab Spring, went virtually unreported. Now, for Israel, this was a major development.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu’s reaction was immediate. He summoned his closest advisers for an emergency meeting.
DORE GOLD, Netanyahu Adviser: My secretary comes rushing in, and she goes, “Dore, the prime minister is on the phone.” I get on the phone, he goes, “Dore, where are you? “ He says, “I need you to come here right now.” I walk into his office, where his desk is, and he’s surrounded by his top advisers. He’s on the speakerphone to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And while I won’t go into what was said in detail, I’ll just say roughly he was not happy.
NARRATOR: What set Netanyahu off was that the president had made any mention of Israel’s borders before the ‘67 War.
RON DERMER, Netanyahu Adviser: Everyone says, “Go back to June 4th, 1967,” as if that will solve all the problems. Here’s the problem. June 4th, 1967, were not lines of peace. Those were lines of war. A noose of death was placed around Israel in those June 4th, 1967, lines.
NARRATOR: The White House had not briefed Netanyahu. And as it turned out, he was planning a trip to Washington the next day.
MARTIN INDYK, Middle East Envoy, 2013-14: From Netanyahu’s point of view, he was convinced that this was an attempt to ambush him, embarrass him, put him in a situation where, you know, the president was, from Netanyahu’s point of view, weakening Israel’s negotiation position by declaring a stance on the ‘67 lines. And so he was furious about it.
NARRATOR: When Netanyahu landed, his ambassador could tell there would be trouble.
MICHAEL OREN: I’ve never seen him like that coming out of the plane. There was no smile. There was no wave. And you can almost imagine steam coming out of his ears. His team of advisers had tried to calm him down, but he had things he wanted to say to the president.
NARRATOR: At the White House, Obama and his top advisers had heard from Hillary Clinton that Bibi was angry.
DENNIS ROSS: The president asks me, why did Bibi react so negatively to the speech. And I said, “Because he was surprised by it, and he felt he was being put in a corner and you were trying to jam him in front of his own constituency before he came here.”
NARRATOR: But one of the president’s top advisers says Netanyahu overreacted.
BEN RHODES: If you look at the principles that we identified, the notion of ‘67 lines with mutually agreed swaps is not at all a controversial idea. That’s been the basis for every negotiation that has neared a resolution over the history of this conflict.
NARRATOR: Just as in their first meeting, the press was summoned.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Everybody set up? All good? Let me, first of all, welcome once again Prime Minister Netanyahu.
NARRATOR: But this time, Bibi Netanyahu would lecture Barack Obama, taking a hard line on the peace process.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen.
BEN RHODES: I have never seen a foreign leader speak to the president like that, and certainly not in public, and I’ve never— certainly never seen it happen in the Oval Office.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Israel obviously cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: You’re watching President Obama there with his face in his hand, and you can tell it’s not going over well. This is his house, and to be lectured in his office rankles.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We cannot go back to the 1967 lines because these lines are indefensible.
NARRATOR: Watching it unfold, Chief of Staff Bill Daley.
DENNIS ROSS: Bill Daley is standing next to me and he’s going, “Outrageous. Outrageous.” And he’s just— I mean, it was like he was almost levitating.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We cannot negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas.
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Adviser, 2009-11: That was intentional. That was done for political— for political effect. I think he came with a mind toward inflaming— inflaming the relationship.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Mr. President, history will not give the Jewish people another chance.
DAVID REMNICK: Obama was treated to a lecture on Jewish and Israeli history that just went on and on, and deeply offended, deeply offended Obama and his people.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It’s the ancient nation of Israel. And you know, we’ve been around for almost 4,000 years. We’ve experienced struggle and suffering like no other people—
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The New Yorker: There was a sense of gall, what gall.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: And now it falls on my shoulders as the prime minister of Israel—
ELLIOT ABRAMS, National Security Council, 2002-09: I think Netanyahu, frankly, had given up on Obama. He felt, “This administration from day one has disliked me, has wanted me out, has wanted me gone. So what’s the point of holding back?”
BEN RHODES: The decision was made to come directly at us. I mean, imagine the president of the United States going to Jerusalem and saying things like that next to the prime minister. I mean, it was a fairly dramatic moment.
NARRATOR: The president had a choice, try to push Netanyahu even harder or walk away from the peace process.
CHEMI SHALEV, Reporter, Ha’aretz: I think Obama realized at that time that the price that he was paying for trying to ram something down Netanyahu’s throat that Netanyahu didn’t want to have rammed down his throat was not worth— it wasn’t worth it for him.
NARRATOR: With the president’s reelection campaign looming, the Obama White House was keenly aware of the political costs of confronting Netanyahu.
PETER BAKER: The Obama people didn’t want to give the Republicans a weapon by having open fights at this point with Netanyahu because it becomes a talking point. You know, “This is a president who’s not supportive of our great friend, Israel. How can he do this to our great friend?” They were looking to negate that as an issue that might come out or be used by the Republicans against them.
NEWSCASTER: —Israel’s prime minister telling President Obama exactly what he thought of the president’s speech—
NARRATOR: The Palestinians, who had once cheered Obama’s election, now watched with disappointment.
DIANA BUTTU, Fmr. Palestinian Negotiator: His approach has been to send signals but to never follow up his signals with actual action. He didn’t back up his statements against settlements with actual actions and saying to the Israelis, “You have to make a choice now. Do you want these settlements or do you want to have the money that we— that we give you every year?” It’s always just been one signal after another signal after another signal. And this isn’t an area that deals well with signals. This is an area that requires concrete action.
NARRATOR: Indeed, under Obama, the United States has continued to provide Israel with as much as $3 billion a year in military aid.
Netanyahu had stood up to the American president. The peace process was on hold. Now he could focus on an issue he believed was more pressing, the fear that Iran was building a nuclear weapon.
MARVIN KALB, Author, The Road to War: Bibi Netanyahu has said a thousand times, if once that, “Iran is not only an enemy of Israel but would literally use those nuclear weapons against us. Never again are we going to put ourselves in a position of allowing an outside force to use overwhelming power to kill us, to try to wipe us out. It’s not going to happen.”
TZIPI LIVNI, Foreign Minister, Israel, 2006-09: We are thinking Iran regime which represents extremist Islamic ideology that would not accept our right to exist at all, that denies the Holocaust trying to achieve a nuclear weapon, I mean—
NARRATOR: And in meeting after meeting, Netanyahu’s military and intelligence services delivered the bad news.
RON DERMER, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.: We’re seeing Iran racing ahead to produce the fissile material necessary for nuclear weapons. They had not only low-enriched uranium, but they were starting to pile up more and more bombs’ worth of low-enriched uranium. And we could see that month after month, that number was getting higher and higher.
NARRATOR: His defense minister, Ehud Barak, once a rival, was now on his side. Iran, Barak said, was entering “the zone of immunity.”
RONEN BERGMAN, Author, The Secret War with Iran: The zone of immunity was that place on the timeline after which the Iranian nuclear sites are going to be immune from Israeli firepower.
MICHAEL OREN: There were a number of clocks ticking. One clock was the rate at which Iran was enriching uranium. Another clock was the rate in which they would complete the enrichment and move underground, at which point, it’d be too late.
NARRATOR: They ordered the Israeli military to plan for a direct strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
RONEN BERGMAN: In the first three months of 2012, everything was ready— huge military buildup, including land bases in other countries, intelligence cooperation, advanced weaponry.
NEWSCASTER: Breaking news—
NEWSCASTER: There’s breaking news about the possibility of an Israeli attack on—
NEWSCASTER: —have been talking about a so-called “zone of immunity”—
NEWSCASTER: Panetta believes that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June.
NEWSCASTER: Israelis say Iran has already produced enough uranium to build—
NARRATOR: But in the White House secure basement Situation Room, they were receiving no word on when or if Netanyahu would order the strike.
NEWSCASTER: Alarm mounting tonight that Israel is ready to attack Iran.
NARRATOR: Communications had broken down between the president and prime minister.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: The American military planners were assuming every night, you know, when they went to sleep that they would wake up to an Israeli attack.
DAVID SANGER, The New York Times: The Israeli government certainly looked like they were practicing an attack. They did a military exercise in which they flew from Israel out over the sea exactly the distance you would have to go to hit Natanz and the other major nuclear sites in Iran. And that really set off a lot of alarms in the United States.
NARRATOR: As the tension mounted, the president’s top advisers warned that an Israeli strike could ignite a war in the Middle East.
BEN RHODES, Dep. Natl. Security Adviser: Any military action would have precipitated, in our view, a much broader conflict with Iran. Iran would have been likely to respond with proxies, and that likely would have led to a chain of events where the United States is at war with Iran.
DAN EPHRON, Journalist: You could imagine, Israel attacks Iran in order to do damage to its nuclear program. Iran now fires missiles at Israel. There’s a large casualty toll. It continues. What does the United States do?
NARRATOR: For Barack Obama, the decision to initiate a war with Iran was now in the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I think the president was resigned to the idea that if Israel went and attacked and then needed help finishing the job or protecting itself, that there wasn’t any real choice, that the president of the United States was going to go in and help.
NARRATOR: But as the possibility of a strike grew, Netanyahu had a problem. The Israeli military was nervous about attacking Iran on its own.
DAVID REMNICK: There are all kinds of figures in the Israeli security establishment, big military figures, who all — all — think that it would be crazy, to say nothing of counterproductive, dangerous, ruinous for Israel to attack Iran.
NARRATOR: With his military wary about a unilateral strike, Netanyahu reluctantly asked Obama for upfront assurance that if Israel went ahead, the U.S. would back them up.
DAVID SANGER: What Netanyahu wants is either a green light or a yellow light to go bomb the Iranian program, and the knowledge that if the Iranians retaliated against Israel, Obama would be right with him to get into that conflict. And Obama wasn’t going to give him that.
NARRATOR: At just this time, the president’s reelection campaign was beginning.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama’s approval ratings have hit an all-time low.
NEWSCASTER: Obama is under 50 percent of—
NARRATOR: In the early going, he was in trouble.
NEWSCASTER: No president has been reelected with this type of—
NARRATOR: So Netanyahu decided to take his argument for striking Iran directly to the American voters.
NEWSCASTER: We’ve seen his approval ratings on the economy dip to new—
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Netanyahu had his maximum leverage in the summer and fall of 2012. This is the point of maximum Israeli power on the issue.
DENNIS ROSS, Natl. Security Council, 2009-11: The White House and the president come to believe that Bibi is using an election year to try to leverage him on the Iran issue, and if you’re not going to let us go militarily, then you have to go.
NEWSCASTER: This morning, a special hour of Meet the Press, an exclusive network interview with a key player in the Middle East, the prime minister—
NARRATOR: On TV show after TV show, he urged Obama to commit to military action if Iran crossed a “red line.”
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think it’s important to place a red line before—
I think it’s important to delineate a red line for Iran.
A red line should be drawn right here.
MARVIN KALB: He is so convinced that he’s right on it, equally so convinced that Obama is dead wrong, and if he can persuade more and more people, America can somehow change its mind.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Don’t let these fanatics have nuclear weapons.
PETER BAKER: It puts enormous pressure on the president, enormous pressure on the White House.
NARRATOR: But Netanyahu’s media blitz did little to persuade the president.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: When Netanyahu pushes Obama, it causes Obama’s neck to stiffen further. And when Obama pushes Netanyahu, it sends him toward his corner. So it’s all wrapped up in the dysfunction between these two men.
NARRATOR: By the fall of 2012, at the United Nations, Obama wouldn’t even sit in the same room with Netanyahu.
MICHAEL OREN, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., 2009-13: There was an attempt to set a meeting between the prime minister and the president in September at the U.N. when they’re both at General Assembly. And the president won’t take the meeting.
NARRATOR: Netanyahu decided to do something no other Israeli prime minister had done, appear to actively support the president’s opponent.
MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How are you, my friend? Good to see you. Thanks so much for making time to say hello. You’re very kind.
DAVID SANGER: It was a remarkable scene. You’ve never seen an Israeli prime minister get as directly involved in a political campaign as this one.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Governor Romney, Mitt, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to Jerusalem. We’ve known each other for many decades. We were so young then. And for some reason, you still look young. I don’t know how you do it!
PETER BAKER: It’s a real gamble for Netanyahu to embrace Mitt Romney the way he does. I mean, it’s a relatively brazen interference, in effect, in American elections.
NARRATOR: And Netanyahu’s conservative wealthy Jewish supporters in America initiated a media campaign.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The world tells Israel, “Wait. There’s still time.”
NARRATOR: The ad targeted Jewish voters in Florida.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: And I say, “Wait for what? Wait until when?”
ANNOUNCER: The world needs American strength.
NARRATOR: At the White House, administration officials said Netanyahu had crossed the line.
MARTIN INDYK, Middle East Envoy, 2013-14: It was, you know, I think pretty clear that Netanyahu was now working with Republicans trying to defeat him.
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Adviser, 2009-11: There is no doubt in my mind that he was— he and Dermer had placed their bet on the Republicans winning in 2012.
NEWSCASTER: The voters vote, the counters count, and the candidates and their—
NARRATOR: On election night, Netanyahu watched with anticipation.
NEWSCASTER: Campaign 2012. We’re closing in on the first results in the battle for the White House.
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The New Yorker: I know for a fact that on election night, you know, the champagne bottles, metaphorically, were on ice. They were waiting. They were absolutely convinced that the world could not fail to see things as they did, and therefore, Romney would almost certainly win.
NEWSCASTER: This is an ABC News special report.
NARRATOR: But as the results came in, Obama won state after state.
NEWSCASTER: Mark the time. Here we are! Ohio is in. We are projecting the battleground state of Ohio—
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: The Israeli government analysis was that Romney was going to win.
NEWSCASTER: You are looking at the president of the United States, Barack Obama!
NARRATOR: Again, Obama received an overwhelming Jewish vote, 69 percent.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Netanyahu was one of the last people, and really last people, like midnight U.S. time on election night, to sort of say, “Oh, I guess he really didn’t have it.” He was like a Fox News bitter-ender in that sense.
NARRATOR: In victory, Obama decided America would handle Iran without Israel.
MARTIN INDYK: I think in that period, the air went out of the balloon. I think that the president has essentially written off Netanyahu.
NARRATOR: Obama wanted to talk with Iran and saw an opportunity to show diplomacy would be more effective than Netanyahu’s confrontational approach.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: Obama comes to office on the theory that we should talk to our enemies, right? And Iran is among them. Yes, Iran is a hostile country. Yes, Iran is sponsoring terrorism. But if we don’t find ways to connect with them, there’s no way to counter them. And sitting down to talk, to him, is a rational, reasonable thing to do.
NARRATOR: Obama told his staff to engage in a series of secret negotiations with Iran, and he ordered them to not tell Netanyahu.
PHILIP GORDON, Obama Adviser, 2013-15: There was concern that there were enough Israelis hostile to the very notion of a channel with Iran that it wouldn’t remain private and it would get blown up politically before we had a chance to explore whether it would work.
NARRATOR: The secret meetings continued for months in the Gulf state of Oman. But Israeli intelligence soon found out, and they were monitoring the travels of William Burns and Jake Sullivan, the U.S. negotiators.
RONEN BERGMAN, Author, The Secret War with Iran: Israeli intelligence learns that the United States has a secret back channel of negotiation with Iran in Oman, in Muscat. And when it learned about this, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu was furious.
MICHAEL OREN, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., 2009-13: It was a type of an implosion. We’re confronted with this reality, in which our principal ally has negotiated behind our backs for seven months with our worst enemy. Now, that is hard to square.
RONEN BERGMAN: Benjamin Netanyahu sees this highly sensitive, secretive intelligence coming from Tehran. The Iranians are happy. The American delegates are making concession after concession. And it leads, I think, naturally to harshen the line against the U.S. government and say, “This is a very bad deal. You are going to make a very bad deal.”
NEWSCASTER: Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Israel today in an effort to—
NEWSCASTER: Next stop, Israel.
NARRATOR: Just as outlines of a secret deal became public, Secretary of State John Kerry made a stopover in Israel. Netanyahu rushed to Ben Gurion Airport for a face-to-face meeting with Kerry.
TZACHI HANEGBI, Netanyahu Adviser: We felt it’s ridiculous, unjustified, immoral. It’s going to be more of the same and worse than the same.
NARRATOR: While Kerry waited in the first class lounge, Netanyahu stopped for a word with the press.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied, as well they should be, because they got everything and paid nothing. This is a very bad deal, and Israel utterly rejects it!
NARRATOR: Then Netanyahu headed for Kerry. He did not hold back.
MARTIN INDYK: It was just Kerry and Netanyahu, but I was outside the room and I could hear it. I could hear it, that’s for sure. He had a really strong sense of betrayal. He was furious. When Bibi gets upset, he starts screaming and pounding the table. And so it was one of those moments.
NARRATOR: But he was not done. Before leaving, Netanyahu went before the cameras one more time.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: This is a bad deal, a very, very bad deal. It’s the deal of a century for Iran. It’s a very dangerous and bad deal for peace and the international community.
NARRATOR: Later that day, Netanyahu summoned Obama’s former adviser, Dennis Ross.
DENNIS ROSS: Bibi asked me to come and see him on Friday evening at his— you know, at his— at the prime minister’s residence. So it was Shabbat evening. And I get there and I have to wait about— you know, close to an hour because he’s on the phone with the president.
NARRATOR: In an emergency phone call from Air Force One, Obama tried to calm Netanyahu down and persuade him that a deal with Iran would make Israel safer. But it didn’t work.
DENNIS ROSS: As many times as I have dealt with Bibi, I had never seen him this way. He wasn’t angry, but he was— the only way I can put it is that he was feeling alarmed, not angry but alarmed.
And the first thing he says to me is, “The president has decided he has no choice but to do a deal with the Iranians. Force is off the table.” And I said, “He didn’t say that to you.” He said, “He did.” I said, “No, he didn’t say that to you.” He said, “He did.”
NARRATOR: Netanyahu believed the Iranians would only respond to the threat of force. To him, if that was not an option, Obama was surrendering to the Iranians.
BEN RHODES, Dep. Natl. Security Adviser: I have no recollection of the president ever telling Prime Minister Netanyahu that the military option is off the table. The president was saying, “Look, we have an opportunity here to get more through diplomacy than we could accomplish even through taking military action.” And that’s an argument he’s had with the prime minister multiple times over the course of the last two years now.
DENNIS ROSS: Bibi was convinced of what he’d heard. He wasn’t saying he had said those exact words, but he interpreted what he heard as if the president— you know, “There’s too much war-weariness in the States. I don’t have the option of using force. This is the only option I have.”
NARRATOR: Ross reached out to Secretary of State John Kerry.
DENNIS ROSS: I actually contacted Kerry and said, “Look, you have a problem here. It has to be fixed.” He said, “I’ll call him.” I said, “No, it shouldn’t be you. The problem isn’t you. The problem is what Bibi thinks where the president is. This needs to be fixed by the White House.” And it wasn’t. He didn’t get a call.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama began the selling job of the nuclear deal with Iran—
NARRATOR: Instead, Obama went to the American people to sell a deal that would impose limits on Iran’s nuclear program and allow international inspections in exchange for lifting sanctions.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: From the perspective of U.S. interests, it is far better if we can get a diplomatic solution. For the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress on Iran’s nuclear program. Key parts of the program will be rolled back.
A comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.
NEWSCASTER: Tough talk as the president of the United States is trying to pull a major sales job.
PETER BEINART, Author, The Crisis of Zionism: For Obama, this is his chance at a legacy in the Middle East, which has been very, very frustrating for him. Iran is so central to his legacy and his perception of American national interests.
NEWSCASTER: Iran has agreed to temporarily freeze key parts—
NARRATOR: In March 2015, as the president and Iranians were on the verge of signing a deal—
NEWSCASTER: —green light an historic deal with Iran.
NARRATOR: —Benjamin Netanyahu, running out of time, arrived in Washington to make that controversial speech urging Congress to block the deal.
NEWSCASTER: You can see him walking by with Dana. Maybe he’ll stop.
PETER BAKER: See, Netanyahu’s already given up on Obama. He looks at Washington and says, “Well, who can I find as an ally?” Well, the Republicans now control both Houses of Congress. And in effect, he decides to make common cause with them.
NEWSCASTER: It’s a big day on Capitol Hill. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address Congress.
ANNOUNCER: Mr. Speaker, the prime minister of Israel!
NARRATOR: He could count on the Republican Party to be against the president, and enlisted AIPAC, the powerful American Israel Political Affairs Committee, to go on the attack.
MARTIN INDYK: For him to go on such a tear, denounce it and line AIPAC up to spend $20 million to try to defeat it is a huge mistake. If he loses, the president will have shown that he can stand up to Israel and the vaunted Israeli lobby. And that will be a lesson for a long time.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I want to thank you all for being here today. I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy—
NARRATOR: A large number of Democrats boycotted the speech, choosing to stand by the president.
DAVID REMNICK: You have this great drama of American politics. You have the drama of a Republican Congress, who almost seems to want to have Bibi Netanyahu as its leader rather than Barack Obama.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Today, the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.
MARTIN INDYK: I think this is for him the fight of his life. He is no longer rational about it. A rational prime minister of Israel, understanding the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, would not confront the president on the most important agreement that he’s managed to negotiate in his presidency.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror!
NARRATOR: It was rhetoric he had perfected over decades, delivered to a receptive crowd— 26 standing ovations. But in the end, it would not be enough.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: May God bless the State of Israel, and may God bless the United States of America!
NARRATOR: Without the Democrats, the Republicans alone could not stop the deal. On the one issue he cared most about, Netanyahu would fail.
ARI SHAVIT: If, God forbid, it goes bad in 10 years’ time, or 20 years, I think that we will all go back to these years from 2009 to 2015, and we will be deeply saddened by the fact that there wasn’t the ability to rise to the challenge, to work together, to get over the bad blood, to get over the mistrust.
NEWSCASTER: —another attack in the violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
NEWSCASTER: —an upsurge in violence in the occupied territory and in Israel itself—
NARRATOR: In the months that followed, violence returned to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
NEWSCASTER: —once again pushed tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians to a boiling point.
AARON DAVID MILLER: You do not have an Israeli or Palestinian leader right now, or an American president, frankly, who’s prepared to pay the price of what it would take to lay the basis for a conflict-ending agreement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
NEWSCASTER: No place is safe. Every bus station, every street corner is the scene of a potential attack.
NARRATOR: The president who had sought to bridge differences can do little now but watch as the conflict continues.
NEWSCASTER: —just the latest victims in a wave of violence—
PETER BAKER: The great dream he has when comes into office, that he’ll be the president who finally solves this— he basically tosses that aside. And he admits it. He thought that if he simply sat people down at a table, that they would be reasonable and that they could figure this out, and that that was just obviously not going to be the case.
NEWSCASTER: Israeli officials stepping up security measures—
NARRATOR: Netanyahu had promised Israelis security through strength, but still presides over a fearful country uncertain about its future.
ARI SHAVIT: It was so needed that the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel will work together in an intimate way.
NEWSCASTER: The peace process has been dead now for more than a year—
ARI SHAVIT: The fact that this never happened, that it was all bitterness and suspicion and political boxing— it’s— it’s a very sad chapter of history.