Eyal Arad: A “Messianic” Netanyahu
“The prime minister has a messianic notion of himself — as a person called to save the Jewish people from this new Holocaust.”
This assessment comes from Eyal Arad, a top Israeli political strategist who was an adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, beginning in 1984. Arad traces this worldview back to Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, a historian who specialized in the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
“The outlook of Netanyahu that is 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, and take our destiny, so to speak, in our own hands … and never trust the outside world to protect us, because it won’t.”
Arad, who parted ways with Netanyahu in 1996, spoke with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk on Aug. 20, 2015 in Tel Aviv. In the edited transcript of the interview below, he describes Netanyahu’s family and military service; his political skills; his reaction to the Oslo Accords and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
… When you see [Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech before Congress] or when you hear about it happening, what are your thoughts about him and about why he comes to the United States and does that?
I thought that he did it for two reasons that were conflicting. One of them is the fact that Netanyahu truly believes not only in the dangers of the deal between the U.S. and Iran that would allow, in his view, Iran to become nuclear in a short span of time. He also has a great belief in the power of words and the power of public utterances and the power of public campaigns, especially public speeches to change historical reality. … He truly believes that.
Secondly, it was a political trick. He was going into elections. He wanted the elections to be around the issues of security, which in Israel are paramount, are first consideration in the mind of the voters, naturally, given our situation.
Israel is the only Western democracy that doesn’t vote entirely on its pocketbook but on national security considerations. He wanted to shift the public debate from the field of economy, where he was weak, to national security. And the speech in Congress drawing the attention to that indeed, if believed, would help him to reshape the political debate in Israel. …
You once knew him, and you were once very close to him. But as you see him there, what’s he got going on that makes him want to do that?
I don’t have any firsthand knowledge. But as an observer, the prime minister has a messianic notion of himself — as a person called to save the Jewish people from this new Holocaust. Beyond that, he’s a very shrewd politician who would take advantage of every eventuality to further his political career and preserve his power as prime minister. And they both live side by side. …
When he would ever talk to you about the military service, what was the meaning of that for him? How did that yield whoever he would become?
Oh, I think that Netanyahu is very Israeli, and don’t make any mistake about it. The fact that he spent some of his best years in the United States both as a kid in high school in Philadelphia or later as a student in Boston or later on as ambassador — and Netanyahu truly admires America, the American culture, the American language, everything about America, maybe except for the fast food. He is really an Americanophile, someone who really feels tied to the American culture, especially the American political culture and history.
However, he is very Israeli. He was in the Israeli Boy Scouts, which are quite different than Boy Scouts around the world. He went in Israel to school in one of the top, very Israeli schools in Jerusalem.
How are the Boy Scouts different in Israel?
The Boy Scouts in Israel are less about the ceremonies and more about patriotism. The study that was made that graduates of the Israeli Boy Scouts excel better in the military service, for example: Higher numbers go to become officers, go to special duties, etc. So it’s more about a social club around patriotism, love of the land, rather than just the ceremonies, the uniform, you know, everything about it. …
For an Israeli young man to go to the army is natural. It’s not something special like it would be for an American, young American. It’s simply part of life there. So he went there. He went to give his best, which he did. He went to this elite unit.
Did he ever talk about Sabena [Flight 571 and his role in the rescue operation of the Black September hijacking]?
Yeah. Oh, he talks quite freely about his military service and military experiences. But for him, he did his duty. He gave five years. He went on to become an officer. He had to give some extra two years on top of what others do, but he made his part, he gave his contribution, and that’s it.
For many Israelis, the army, army service is a natural thing. It comes with life here. It does shape you in terms of responsibility, maturity. It does create sort of an alma mater of social context that goes with you for life.
But you do it; then you go back to civilian clothes. You still keep always your ties to the military because we all do reserve duty for a lengthy period every year. I still do it. And we all among ourselves talk very freely about it. … You cannot really go into Israeli public life if you haven’t fulfilled your duties. It’s really kind of a sine qua non with being Israeli. …
He skips his high school graduation in Philadelphia to come back for the Six-Day War. Why?
Oh, this is the thing we do. During the 1967 [war], I was nine. The feeling here in Israel is that we’ll look at a very close and clear danger of being exterminated. And this is a life-and-death fight, so everyone who could do something about it did. It was actually not coming if you can do it, not joining this fight, it would have been close to treason.
And that Israel prevailed so profoundly in that war, how did it change Israel?
Oh, it changed Israel in so many ways. The most profound is the self-assuredness that Israel is a reality that cannot be quickly erased. Self-confidence of Israel grew, totally changed. If up until ’67 the overall notion of Israelis was the Holocaust — and this was a country of survivors, of people who survived the Holocaust and are being chased to death by the enemies, the new Nazis — the Six- Day War really changed that sense of self-confidence. Israel is a fact; it’s strong; it is here to stay. It’s a move toward normality of our both private and public life.
Of course, danger is not gone. It is not that the world around us became a peace-loving universe. We still have to live with our sword on the hip, but it’s a long and good sword, and we can have confidence that we can fend off those threats. Israel is not living on the verge of destruction. When you get a few steps away from the edge of the cliff, suddenly you can do things.
Tell me about his father and his influence. …
His father was certainly one of the greatest influences over him, intellectual, deep thought, very particular as to the details, a man of words. I think that Netanyahu got his admiration for the word, both written and spoken, from his father, who was a man of words, and certainly the overall political outlook of the Jewish people as a nation that was for two millennia victimized by the world and that always has to look behind its back to see enemies approaching.
I remember when I was Netanyahu’s assistant, listening to then-Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Shamir in the Holocaust Remembrance Day, when public figures come up and call the names of their family members who were murdered during the Holocaust. He was deputy foreign minister; I was assistant. And we were listening to the Prime Minister Shamir who was reading the names of his family members that were murdered by the Christian neighbors who promised to hide them and then simply slaughtered them and took all of their belongings, and I remember Netanyahu looking at me and says, “This man understands that you cannot trust the world.”
If you go back to his father, his father’s most celebrated work is about the Spanish Inquisition. The outlook of Netanyahu that is 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, and take our destiny, so to speak, in our own hands and defend ourselves and never trust the outside world to protect us, because it won’t.
I must admit, this outlook, maybe not so eloquently outspoken, is certainly shared by the majority of Israelis. There is deep-rooted mistrust of the knight on the white horse that would come from the outside to rescue Israel, the Jewish people, in the time of dire need. No, he won’t come. He will be delayed for some unknown reason and left us to rot. I think that outlook of mistrust to the good intentions of the outside world toward Israel is deep-rooted in the current, collective psyche of Israel. …
Let’s talk about the death of his brother Yoni. What did he tell you about that? How did it affect him?
Oh, surely it affected him. Yoni was the eldest son, the role model for the two younger brothers. And certainly it affected him, personally, emotionally, and I think also contributed to his decision to seek public office.
But Netanyahu is very closed emotionally. He doesn’t speak a lot about his emotions. He doesn’t reveal a lot of emotion. He talks about Yoni freely. He admires him. He and his brother Iddo, the younger brother, spent really a lot of time and effort into enshrining Yoni as one of Israel’s national heroes and into writing the history of the Entebbe operation, almost to the point of obsession with the small details, with exactly what happened every minute, sons of a historian.
I think that in many, many ways Netanyahu saw Yoni, his elder brother, as a role model for what Israelis should be. And in many, many ways he’s trying to take those values that he found with his brother and bring them to the public arena.
What are those qualities? What are those characters?
First and foremost the willingness to, or the understanding that, there is no one that is going to defend the Jewish nation, that it’s up to the individuals to step forward to take that role and take that bond upon them, and do it willingly, happily and taking in all the hardships that this kind of life entails — and doing that without becoming professional soldiers, without losing the interest and touch with the hearts and humanity and human values. …
So you meet him when he is the United Nations ambassador. …
Yeah. I met him when he was ambassador to the U.N. I was a student that just graduated. My wife had still another year to go at Columbia University. I was looking for something to do. I already visited all the jazz clubs in New York, so I applied to a junior temp position at the U.N. mission. As part of that I was interviewed by the ambassador. You have to understand that the entire Israeli mission to the U.N. consists of six people, including the ambassador, plus a few secretaries.
So the ambassador would interview the assistants, taking the few temp jobs. So I went to interview. I knew very little about him. I knew he was the brother of Yoni, but that was about it.
Because why? Yoni is that famous?
Yeah. Oh, yes. Yoni is a myth. Yoni, in Israel, is one of a line of mythical heroes of Israel’s independence. The Entebbe operation is certainly one of the top events that is remembered by the Israeli public. There were so many terrorist attacks and so many counterattacks both successful and failed. Entebbe certainly shines above them all because of the drama, because of the distance. It’s huge drama.
Every city in Israel, every town in Israel has a school named after or a street or a square named after Yoni Netanyahu. People name their children after Yoni Netanyahu. His book, letters of Yoni [The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu], became one of the most read books, rivaling The Diary of Anne Frank. So Yoni is certainly a national hero.
So you meet his brother, the U.N. ambassador. Do you know about Bibi?
Very little. No, very little. I know there is an ambassador. He is the brother of Yoni, the famous Yoni Netanyahu.
What’s his aspect when you walk in there. What is he like?
Looks dynamic, very dynamic, energetic. There was energy in the room when you talked to him. It was in the conversation. I was a young student with not much experience, certainly not in international affairs. He interviewed me for five minutes. He said if I don’t mind that we switched to English because he wanted to see if my English is up to standard. And he asked me, “How is your English?” I said, “No one would think I come from Massachusetts.” He said, “If you can say ‘Massachusetts,’ you’re hired.”
I didn’t know then of his ties to being a student in Boston and living there, etc. So I became a junior temp position at the U.N. mission. I think I maybe exchanged 10 words with him during that period. I was on the lowest of the low, and he was the ambassador. But, you know, I then saw the admiration with which he is met, both at the U.N. by members of the mission, by other diplomats at the U.N. and by the public, by American media.
Then, after I finished my temp position, which was four months, I walked the corridor just on my last day, and I meet him. He asked me if I could do him a favor. I said: “God has spoken. Of course I can do you a favor.” He said: “Would you call this reporter? Tell him that we have a Security Council session on Lebanon, and tell him that you’re my spokesperson, and join me at the council chamber.” I said: “Mr. Ambassador, certainly I can call the reporter, but I’m not your spokesperson. I’m leaving here today.” So he puts his head like that, and he said, “And get a tie from somewhere.” And that is how I was hired as his spokesperson.
Fairly typical of him?
No. This was not the real story. Later on I discovered he was looking for someone who would deal with the press. The foreign ministry has clipped the position of a press attaché, so he was looking for someone local, [an] Israeli that works on the local contract. He was offering the job to a few people, but the pay was so low that no one with experience would take it. And he researched about me, and apparently we had some common friends. I had some political history as a young operative in Likud.
So he liked what he heard about me. He watched me during those four months, and when he met me, he already decided that he wants to take me on as his spokesperson.
He by then is already a television star in America.
… What is it about him that makes him catnip to American television anchormen and television?
If I can quote Rick Kaplan, executive producer of Nightline at the time, he said, “In order to have someone on Nightline repeatedly, he has to have three characteristics.” He has to speak excellent English. … He’s got to have a byline, right, something under the name. You can’t just take anyone off of the street just because they speak good English. And he has to have something to say, more than just a sound bite. He has to have a message. And Netanyahu met all three characteristics. He speaks excellent American; he has got the right title, ambassador to the U.N.; and he had a message at the time that was relevant and interesting to American audiences. He put it up with great talent, without trying to cover it up like so many politicos do in so many complicated words. He was talking directly to the hearts and minds of the American public, and that is why he was popular.
He practiced to do this, I’ve read. Did he?
Yes. Of course he understood the power of television. Netanyahu was a very [methodical] person. When he writes a speech, he writes a speech; he doesn’t have a speechwriter. Someone might write the first draft, but for a regular speech he would take the day off, cut all the phones, and work on the speech and go again and again and again until he is satisfied, and then he would rehearse making that speech.
The same goes for television. He understood the power of television in the sense that this is a technique that can be mastered through study and through practice, and it took Lilyan Wilder [Center for Communication Excellence], who helped him to shape and improve his TV appearances. I find that to his credit that he would not be satisfied with mediocrity.
What was his message?
At that time his basic message was the war against terrorism, international terrorism in the ’80s, and it is a sense that Western governments do not understand the phenomena, think that by appeasement of terrorist organizations and terrorist states they can buy a free license from that. He was right in his historical analysis. Today you see that most international terrorism, global terrorism hits those very societies that gave birth to the phenomena, Arab and Muslim societies. So this was the message.
And beyond that there was a message about how democracies should stand tall and fight for the values against those people that do not share that system of values and are trying to threaten it. I think in this he was one of the earliest people who brought up this message. That became so clear to Americans after 9/11, that there is a war going on, and it’s a war between good and evil and that you have to stand up in that war. You cannot just run away; you have to fight it and win it.
A message that resounded with Americans. In some way he was the stereotypical Israeli to Americans. How was he to Israelis?
Oh, they loved him. First of all, he was the guy who is going, taking on debates with representatives of the Arab position and winning over them on American television. It was like a huge wrestling or boxing. But he is scoring points for us. … They admired his energy, his look, his success. They loved him.
When did he start talking about, “Let’s go to Israel; let’s go to Likud; let’s go get the big prize”?
I worked with him for four years at the U.N. I guess after two years we … became closer and discussed politics. I had my political background, so he knew that. And he started to ask more and more of my thinking about Israeli politics, etc. He knew many of the political operatives were my age because we worked together both in the youth organization of Likud and later on in students’ organization.
And of course, being his spokesperson, I was also in touch with the press and so started to inquire about political events. It was known that he was a political appointee by Likud. He was groomed by Moshe Arens the day he went back to Israel to become the defense minister. So I think it was pretty obvious that at one point he would go into politics. And actually, even people who were not of the Likud side, the right-wing side in Israel, thought that this was a great idea that he would go, because he looked like, you know, the new Israeli, the new generation of successful, intelligent, well-spoken man of the world, the kind of politician, the kind of political leader that we would like to see. …
Let’s talk a little bit about the Oslo Accords. … What is his stance and posture toward Oslo?
The Oslo Accords caught him by surprise. Actually, he was out of the country when it was published. He came back to Israel. I met him at the airport in this little coffee shop in a gas station right next to airport to try and analyze the situation. He thought that the Oslo Accords are a game changer. He said, “We need to look very carefully and think thoroughly, because it changes everything.” …
Remember, he is chairman of the opposition. I think he is briefed officially by the prime minister about at least the public aspects of the accord. We’re sitting in this small Italian restaurant in southern Tel Aviv that doesn’t exist anymore, and he explains to me on the napkin of paper, as he likes to do many times, what is the game changer.
The Oslo Accords created three different, three irreversible realities and one great danger. The irreversible realities [are] one, the land is going to be divided. If the Oslo Accords are being implemented, this means the division of the land, the thing that we fought against for so many years, even before the establishment of Israel, coming from the Revisionist [Zionist] right-wing party that opposed the various partition plans. It says partition is a fait accompli. Land is going to be partitioned between us and the Palestinians.
Secondly, he said, we will not have a say in what would evolve on the Palestinian side, so eventually it will become a state, an independent state.
And thirdly, he said, because the Oslo Accords were signed with the PLO, then the ruler of these Palestinian territories that would eventually evolve into a Palestinian state would be the PLO, the terrorist organization. … He said it’s going to be an extremist terrorist state in the heart of Israel. Hence it is a great danger that they will not be satisfied with that small chunk of land to be able to establish their independent state, but they will actually use it as a launching pad to intensify the terrorist campaign against Israel, trying to totally disintegrate Israeli society.
So I said, OK, you know, son of historian, great analysis. What do we do with that? He says, what we have to do with that is change our outlook. We have to understand that this is a fait accompli, and we need to start and rebuild our security policy or security offering to the people come elections based on that fact. Actually, he wanted to call a convention, a Likud convention, and change Likud platform to accommodate for the fact.
Now, this doesn’t mean that he accepted the Oslo Accords or that he thought they were good accords. But he said you cannot fight that fact, just as you cannot fight the fact that the sun rises in the morning, sets down in the evening. Maybe you don’t like that fact, but it is a fait accompli. And so we have to change our thinking and to incorporate that fact into our new strategy. …
He thought that this would be understood as if he is accepting or condoning the Oslo Accords, which he had no intentions of doing. However, because this was only the first phase, we started secret negotiations with the late Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin, where he offered to him that if Rabin and himself can come to an understanding about some red lines for the second phase of the Oslo Accord, he will limit the opposition in the street against those accords.
He would not go to supporting them, and he certainly had no attention of joining that government. But he said, we’ll vote against, but we’ll control the street action against the accords. And the condition for this negotiation was that they would never be leaked. They would be kept as a secret understanding between these two men.
But Rabin has very little appreciation for Netanyahu even though they fought some shared political battles on some political reforms, etc. So he had his office leak in the form that Netanyahu is begging to start negotiations to join the government, which of course we denied, and these negotiations were cut off.
So they didn’t like each other personally?
Rabin I think thought very little of Netanyahu. He thought of him as a mostly PR appearance and never recognized the intelligence and the intellectual abilities of Netanyahu; certainly did not regard him as a serious political leader. It was also a generational thing. Rabin, one of the fighters of the Independence War, seeing this new generation that was born after the state was born, it was, you know, the founders generation looking at the next generation and saying, “They don’t look like us.” …
Netanyahu liked Rabin personally. Certainly remembered him as the prime minister who ordered the Entebbe operation. It wasn’t that they didn’t know each other. They knew each other well. Had admiration of him as a military leader. Less admired both his political skills and his diplomatic understanding, coming again from similar background as ambassador not to but in the U.S., and believing that he understands the modern world far better than Rabin. He thought that Rabin was a weak personality that was led astray by political pressures to go into a cause that he himself didn’t believe in without seeing the full dangers that would follow.
But let’s say that Netanyahu toward Rabin was far more positive then Rabin’s attitude toward Netanyahu.
… What did he feel about his obligations during that time to make the political arguments that he was making in the face of increasing intensity on the streets?
At that time we did not feel the intensity of the street. We were engaged in a political debate that was legitimate. We opposed the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu saw the dangers that materialized quite quickly. The Oslo Accords led to the worst terror campaign period in the history of Israel. If you look at the number of casualties between ’93, the Oslo Accords, and Operation 2002-2003, or Operation Defensive Shield, when IDF [Israel Defense Forces] retook, under Sharon, retook the West Bank cities and put an end to the terror communities, this is the largest numbers of civilian casualties in Israel in its entire history. …
Netanyahu saw that danger, warned against it, fought against it. This was a legitimate political debate. There isn’t a single quote that anyone can attribute to Netanyahu that goes outside the pale of a legitimate debate in a democratic society.
However, the attempt to pin on him the fact that the bunch of extremists used that to incite for violence and certainly for later the murder of the prime minister — the attempt to pin it on him and on the political forces that fought against that accord and debated the logic of the Oslo Accord is a cheap, political propaganda trick that was taken by his political opponents, mostly from the left, in order to delegitimize Netanyahu as a political public [figure] and to delegitimize the positions of Likud in the Israeli, open political debate.
I was at that time his closest adviser. You cannot find a single quote by him that is even close to what we might agree is the legitimate inhibition in a political debate. And even though I’m not a Netanyahu supporter these days, I fought many campaigns against him, but the truth has to be told. The debate on Oslo was a legitimate debate, and many of the claims of the opponents were proved in real time as true.
There is another fact that people forget, and that is that when Netanyahu came to campaign as prime minister, and in spite of his opposition to the accords, he promised to uphold them. That comes back from the fact that already back in ’93 he understood not politically but through his analysis of the diplomatic situation that the Oslo Accords created a fait accompli, irreversible facts that cannot be undone. In the words of [then-future Prime Minister] Shimon Peres, you cannot unbreak broken eggs. Those eggs, in his view, were broken.
His campaign promise was not to repeal the Oslo Accords as his right wing demanded, but to change the course of implementation in such a way that would better ensure the security of Israel.
When Rabin is killed that night, how does Netanyahu hear about it? Are you witness to him knowing? …
I was not with him. I spoke with him endlessly that night. I was in Tel Aviv, not far away from the square where Rabin was murdered.
He was in shock. He was in shock that it happened. He was in shock that the political debate became violent debate — never saw it coming. And he took a decision that night, in spite of efforts of important political figures inside Likud, who tried to convince him to take advantage of the situation. He then coined a phrase: “Israel will not change its government by the bullet of a gun.”
Netanyahu called a special meeting of the Likud caucus, right the next morning, 8:00 in the morning, which is not the common hour for the caucus meeting. He put a proposal that the Likud caucus would recommend to the president to appoint Shimon Peres, number two in the Labor Party, as a replacement prime minister and that the Likud would support that move in a Knesset vote by our system, in spite of the fact that Likud is the opposition. He said that any caucus member that who would not abide by that would be kicked out of the Likud, out of the party. …
I suppose at some moment before the assassination, he had to be planning the eventual run against Rabin.
Oh, yeah. We were already past that. We already had the plan on how to run the national elections by some American strategist, the late Richard Wirthlin. We had our strategy already written up on that.
And, by the way, weeks and months before the murder, our polling showed that Netanyahu was the front-runner. His numbers were better than Rabin’s. And if you extrapolate that, had Rabin not been murdered, he would probably be defeated by Netanyahu in elections in a far larger gap than Shimon Peres. And Rabin at this point had very low job rating and favorability numbers. So we had our strategy already mapped out.
So when he dies —
When he dies, Netanyahu put away this for a month or so. For two months we did not discuss his political future. He was really in shock. He had no mind to discuss politics, seriously. Actually, he got some of the political advisers like me frustrated. We said, okay, you know, it’s terrible. The prime minister was murdered. It is certainly a huge, national trauma, but life goes on. We have a new government. Terrorism continues. Buses still being blown up in the middle of our cities. We need do something about it.
But it is not that he said, “No, this is not the time for it,” or “Let’s wait.” He simply had no mind to discuss politics during this period.
I think he himself was traumatized by the magnitude of the event.
A lot of people tell us that if Peres would have called an election quickly, fairly quickly, he would have won. … He waited too long. The bombings were continuing, and despite the help of President Clinton and the American White House doing what they could to shore up Peres, it was too late.
Nobody knows this. You know, “what if?,” speculative, alternative history is good for science fiction. …
The fact is that I could argue that even if Peres would have called snap elections and won over the trauma of the murder and continued with the same policy, his government would not have lasted long, and he would have been defeated by the time, because Netanyahu’s victory in ’96 was not just the result of some political intrigue [coupled with] an excellent campaign. It was a protest of many, many Israelis against the political elite’s move on the so-called diplomatic agendas without any regard to the real security threats this diplomacy is creating.
The left, the Labor government under Rabin and Peres, had shown no empathy to the victims of terrorism, of those terrorist attacks. Not that they didn’t mourn them like an Israeli, but politically there was no sign that [these led] them to any reconsideration of their policies. For them it was, OK, but we have to move on on this track. Israelis lost faith in the process, in that process. One of the slogans that came from grassroots was, “This peace is killing us.” …
I remember a caricature, a cartoon, with the graveyard of people who were killed in some bus bombing. … One of the slogans of peace is, “We’ve got to make sacrifices for peace.” So it says: “Don’t mourn us. We were sacrificed for your peace.” This was a cartoon in daily newspaper. …
So how does Netanyahu, the candidate, feel about such an impulse by the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, to step into Israeli elections, to assist and try to shore up as much as possible Shimon Peres, to such an extent that they throw a convention where Arab leaders come. The president is doing everything he can and in a kind of unprecedented way, stepping into Israeli politics.
Yes. I guess if you ask Netanyahu today how dare he intervene in American political campaigns in favor of the Republicans, he would say, “Well, it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who in an unprecedented way intervened in our political campaigns in order to prevent me from winning elections.” So it is like, “You started.”
Was he angry when he talked about it, when he heard about it?
No. I think he assumed that left helps the left. And he also assumed — and we already verified that from polling — that that’s not going to help. Actually, it would strengthen the notion of common Israelis that while buses are blowing up here in the street, it’s the world, the external world, the world that never liked us Jews, that we should never trust, that is trying to push us ahead.
And Peres and the left is willingly embraced, get that embraced, preferring the embrace of the Clintons rather than of the Cohens and Levys of Israel. So it actually in a way certainly did not disturb our campaign. In a way it might have even helped it.
But I thought Clinton was so embraced by Israelis?
Oh, Israelis loved Clinton. If he ran here for prime minister, [he would] win easily, no matter under which banner. Israelis loved Clinton, Bill Clinton. Still do. … But hey, I can love a family member and respect him, but he should not tell me how to educate my children, come between me and my wife.
Did Bibi look forward to that first meeting with Clinton? Did he have an inkling that they were going to get along?
You don’t know the story of the first Bibi-Clinton meeting, do you?
You tell me.
We were in Washington for the peace talks after the Madrid Conference. This was ’92. We had the big peace conference in Madrid, and later on there were rounds of talks in Washington, and Bibi was sort of the overall head of the mission. He wasn’t a member of any of the committees but was doing the overall public diplomacy side of it as deputy minister in the prime minister’s office. So he was out there in Washington in one of those posh D.C. hotels.
One of the operatives of the Democratic Party whom I knew called me and says, “I would like to arrange a meeting for Netanyahu with a friend of mine who is running in the primaries of the Democratic Party.” And I said: “Listen, we are running an extremely tight schedule. I don’t know if I can push it.” And this guy says: “Listen, do that as a personal favor to me. Please tell Bibi it was a good friend, that this is a personal favor to me.” “Who is the guy?,” I said. “Oh, it’s Bill Clinton.”
And so I go to him and says: “Bill Clinton, come on, he doesn’t have a chance. He’s running fifth in the primaries. I hear there are rumors about his problems with — you know, all sorts of rumors about him.”
Zipper problems, they call them.
Right. Netanyahu is not very bland about this type of things. I said, “Yeah, but your friend, [Democratic Leadership Council founder] Al From is asking that as a personal favor.” He says: “Al From, I owe, so have them come. What is the best time that we can squeeze it in?” I said: “Actually, we don’t have much time. The only thing is if you agree to have them at like 10:00 p.m.” He says: “OK, have them come to the hotel. I’ll talk to him.”
And so they come, Al From and Bill Clinton and Hillary. The three of them come. I meet them in the lobby. They go up to his room, which is not this big room. It is just a regular hotel room, not a suite or anything. So Netanyahu sits on the bed, and Bill and Hillary take chairs. I take a stool on the side to take notes if need be. And they hit it off immediately. Bibi and Bill, it was chemistry in there, and when they came out he said: “He is going to be president. She is a problem.”
In what way?
I guess he meant she is a problem in terms [of] she is not that warm; she is not that outgoing. But he and Bill Clinton, I thought that, and still do think that, there are many similarities between Bibi and Clinton. They have become very close friends if not for the politics, left and right, peace and war that separated them. …
So Bibi knows Clinton, but it is politics that Clinton is supporting Peres. He could still believe that personally he and Clinton, when they meet each other, are going to like each other.
I think it was a big surprise to me that when they met as president and prime minister they didn’t hit it off. It became a rift rather than a bond.
I don’t know. I wasn’t involved then. You know, I had the campaign ’96 and then split ways. I don’t know why it didn’t work out.
It wasn’t just matters of policy, by the way, because Netanyahu in his first [term] actually went a long way, kept his campaign promises. He did not repeal the Oslo Accords. He signed the Hebron Agreement. He went on later to the Wye Conference.
Shook Arafat’s hand.
Shook Arafat’s hand, actually, at the White House. I found a friend in Arafat. So I truly think that this was politics, that the Clintons didn’t like Netanyahu and the Likud and their politics. They thought that this was an accident and with a little bit of effort they can repel them, which, by the way, happened when [Ehud] Barak won with the help of the Clinton team, the [Tony] Blair team on the other, coming together to help.
Of course, the reason that Barak won over Netanyahu had nothing to do with the Clintons, the Blairs and the campaign managers. It was more about Israeli disappointment with Netanyahu’s reign as prime minister.
One person told us that he gets the idea that Clinton is on the peace process, and he’s got to do something. So he swallows hard — this is Netanyahu, against his own father’s advice — plays the game, as you say, [signs] Hebron, shakes Arafat’s hand. And the people who were pushing him: “Don’t stick with him; don’t support him; don’t come to him.” The right leaves him. … And it’s a big, important lesson to him about compromise in politics. Make sense?
This makes sense. I believe that in his first term that Netanyahu really felt, he came as a prime minister that really wanted to change the course of history of Israel, make it a secure place for Jews. He understood that he has to go by the Oslo route. He always said during his campaign: “I’m not going to abandon peace. I’m just going to change the way of pursuing peace.” And he did.
The fact is he curbs out terrorism. [There are] no terrorist attacks during his three years as first-term prime minister, except one bombing in a cafe in Tel Aviv. And he goes on that route. He signs the accord, shakes Arafat’s hand, and gets in trouble with his right wing. That brings down his government. And he gets no credit for that, neither from the international community or the Israeli left.
Now, the reasons for his downfall in ’99 are totally different. It has nothing to do with this. They are all about domestic issues. Actually, the fact that he curbed out terrorism allowed Israelis to feel more secure and turned their attention to domestic issues such as economy, jobs, etc., like normal people, and his style of leadership. Then came the real problem, which is his personality, his style of leadership, this royal-couple thing and this divisive speeches, us and them, all the time. It’s us and them. It’s us and them.
When this was us and them, with us Israelis and them, the Arabs, Israelis loved it. When it became us as right wing and them left wing, us is this segment of society, them is that segment of society, then it became irritating, because national unity in Israel is the single most important political value that we have, which, you know, comes from our history, a small nation beleaguered by the great powers of the world, and we have to keep together.
This is the real reason for his downfall in 1999, his style of leadership or rather lack of style of leadership, his divisiveness and his failure in domestic policies, his failure to come through with his domestic policies. And the fact that so many people start to leave Likud, rebel against him — his defense minister, his treasury minister, etc. …
So when Camp David falls apart, Bibi Netanyahu, who made every effort he could, as you say, sits there and watches this happen, and says to himself, knowing full well that he is going to try to run again one of these days, sitting there, he must say to himself, “I told you so.”
Probably. Bibi Netanyahu has great analytical skills, and most of his predictions are coming true. I don’t think that you can question his intelligence, his understanding of the world and of political situations and his ability to predict events. He is not always right, but he is more right than wrong on many, many occasions.
… What happened to you and him?
Well, that’s not a matter for public discussion.
Because when you work with someone and the confidence they bestow upon you, part of the ethical vow that you take for yourself is not to divulge those private discussions that you had with him.
You still feel, even watching him through the last, from ’09 to now, is this a man you recognize?
Certainly there are certain things that are there. But there are certain traits that might have been there in a more nuclear form but have developed. The notion of power can either take the best out of you or the worst out of you. And I’m afraid it took the worst out of him. …