HomeMiddle EastAt Shimon Peres Funeral, a Lineup of U.S. and Israeli Leaders Who Tangled

At Shimon Peres Funeral, a Lineup of U.S. and Israeli Leaders Who Tangled

September 30, 2016

WASHINGTON — When Bill Clinton took his place on Friday at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem for the state funeral of Shimon Peres, he was part of a tangled tableau: leaders from Israel and the United States who came together to mourn a giant of peace but who nurse their own political feuds and rivalries, stretching back two decades.

Standing close to the former president was Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Mr. Clinton energetically tried to defeat when he challenged Mr. Peres for the prime minister post in 1996. Nearby was President Obama, whom Mr. Netanyahu not so subtly tried to oust in 2012 by signaling his support for Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent.

Hillary Clinton was absent, though she met with Mr. Netanyahu last Sunday in New York. She has not had to deal with him putting his thumb on the electoral scales, even if he did meet with Donald J. Trump for 80 minutes at his office in Trump Tower before seeing her.

“Believe me, he’s not a happy camper,” Mr. Trump said of the Israeli leader the next day during his debate with Mrs. Clinton.

It was the only time Mr. Netanyahu’s name came up in the debate, however, and Mr. Trump’s characterization seemed at odds with the reassuring message about the two presidential candidates that Mr. Netanyahu brought back to Israel.

“It doesn’t matter which of them will be elected,” the prime minister told a meeting of his cabinet on Tuesday. “The support for Israel will remain strong, the alliance will remain strong and will get even stronger in the coming years.”

Such equanimity is more the exception than the rule when it comes to how Americans and Israelis view each other’s elections. With so much in common, yet so much riding on a handful of delicate national-security issues that sometimes divide them, Israeli and American leaders have found it difficult to avoid meddling in each other’s politics.

Perhaps the most flagrant example came in the spring of 1996, a few months after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Mr. Peres had taken over for his slain friend and rival, pledging to continue Israel’s participation in peace talks with the Palestinians, sponsored by Mr. Clinton. But he faced a wily opponent in the Likud Party’s candidate, Mr. Netanyahu, who was running against the peace process.

“Were Netanyahu to be elected, the process begun in Oslo would be in serious jeopardy,” Martin S. Indyk, then the ambassador to Israel, wrote in his 2009 book about the Middle East, “Innocent Abroad.” “So, too, would Clinton’s entire Middle Eastern strategy.”

Dennis B. Ross, who advised Mr. Clinton on the Middle East, said: “After the assassination, Clinton felt he was on a mission to fulfill the Rabin legacy. Peres was Rabin’s partner, and was as motivated as Clinton, and told him so.” With Mr. Netanyahu running against the Oslo Accords, he added, “Clinton was ready to do whatever he could to help Peres.”

The president set out to help in ways large and small. In March 1996, Mr. Clinton organized a summit meeting on the peace process in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Afterward, he flew Mr. Peres home to Israel aboard Air Force One, symbolically wrapping him in a warm embrace.

Weeks before the Israeli election, Mr. Clinton invited Mr. Peres to Washington to sign the United States-Israel Counterterrorism Cooperation Accord, an agreement that expedited $50 million in emergency aid to Israel at a time when Hezbollah, with help from its Iranian backers, and Hamas were stepping up suicide bus bombings and other attacks in the country.

The White House also sent two well-connected Democratic Party consultants, Doug Schoen and Zev Furst, to coordinate messages with the Peres campaign. On election night, Mr. Furst recalled, he was in Israel when Mr. Schoen called from the White House, requesting a home number for Mr. Peres. The exit polls showed that he was going to defeat Mr. Netanyahu, and Mr. Clinton wanted to call to congratulate him.

“I called Peres at home,” Mr. Furst said, “and he said, ‘This election is not over yet.’ ”

Mr. Netanyahu edged out Mr. Peres by less than 30,000 votes, 50.4 percent to 49.5 percent. His victory signaled a turning point for Mr. Clinton’s peacemaking ambitions, though as Mr. Indyk wrote, for reasons broader than just Mr. Netanyahu. Iran had decided that undermining the peace process played into its geopolitical strategy.

Sixteen years later, Iran was again at the heart of a political contest between Mr. Netanyahu and an American president. Mr. Obama was pushing for a nuclear deal with Iran; Mr. Netanyahu vociferously opposed it. He found a welcome partner in Mr. Romney, who visited Israel in July 2012 as the presumptive Republican nominee and declared that preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb should be America’s “highest national security priority.”

“Mitt, I couldn’t agree with you more,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a meeting.

Mr. Obama won re-election — demonstrating, as Mr. Netanyahu’s victory did in 1996, that meddling in an American or an Israeli election is a dubious strategy. Certainly, that seems to be a lesson that Mr. Netanyahu has learned this time around. But analysts also note that after the signing of the Iran deal, he has no real motivation to do so.

“With the Iran deal, there was a reason to justify interceding,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East diplomat now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The pretext for interceding, unlike for Clinton and Peres, simply isn’t there.”

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign issued an upbeat, though unrevealing, statement after her meeting with Mr. Netanyahu. Her decision not to attend Mr. Peres’s funeral surprised no one, since it would have taken her off the campaign trail for two days at a critical juncture. If her absence does not erase history, it will at least allow Israelis to bid farewell to one of their founding fathers without the intrusion of the current American election.

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(via NY Times)

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