Netanyahu, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel in War of Words

January 6, 2016
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk speaks at the State Department on July 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is disputing a former U.S. ambassador’s account of a 1995 conversation about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

In an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary, Netanyahu at War, which aired Tuesday, former ambassador Martin Indyk says he spoke with Netanyahu, then the head of the political opposition in Israel, as Rabin’s body was brought to parliament to lie in state. As Indyk described the conversation:

Netanyahu sat next to me when I was ambassador in Israel at the time of Rabin’s funeral. The first step was to bring his body from the hospital through a cortege up to the Knesset where he would lie in state. There was a big assembly of dignitaries and the diplomatic core and politicians and so on at the Knesset waiting for Rabin’s body to arrive, the coffin. And I remember Netanyahu saying to me: “Look, 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.”

On Wednesday, the prime minister’s office denied the exchange, and was quoted in the Israeli media saying it “never happened.” Netanyahu’s Likud Party issued a separate response, calling the comments “another lie by Martin Indyk, who doesn’t stop slandering and reviling the prime minister of Israel.” The nation’s Zionist Union responded with a defense of the former ambassador, saying the denial by the prime minister’s office “prove how low” he can go.

Indyk, who served as ambassador from 1995 to 1997, and again from 2000 to 2001, stood by his comments and wrote on Twitter today, “The conversation w Bibi took place on Nov 5/95 when we sat together at the Knesset ceremony to receive Rabin’s coffin to lie in state.”

Rabin was killed on Nov. 4. His funeral was held on Nov. 6.

Indyk recounted the conversation in a July 2015 interview with FRONTLINE, echoing what he wrote in a diplomatic cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv the day after the assassination in 1995.

According to the cable, published by WikiLeaks in 2011, Indyk wrote, “Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu told us last night that Likud and the right will be directly blamed for the violence leading to the assassination of Rabin. He called the death of Rabin ‘a disaster for the Jewish people, a disaster for Israel and a disaster for the right which will be decimated if elections are called soon.’”

In his interview with FRONTLINE, Indyk said that “even at that moment of tremendous support, a tragic moment of support for Rabin, Netanyahu was thinking, well, politically he was on the ropes before he was assassinated.”

The dispute is not the first time Indyk has faced criticism from officials in the Israeli government. In 2014, for example, he delivered an address critical of Israeli settlement activity. In response, a member of the prime minister’s negotiating team for Middle East peace called the assessment “simplistic and wrong.”

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