WASHINGTON — During the funeral ceremonies for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, then the leader of the opposition, said he was sorry Rabin was murdered because his untimely death meant he would go down in history as a “hero,” according to Martin Indyk, who was the American ambassador to Israel at the time.
“Netanyahu sat next to me when I was ambassador in Israel at the time of Rabin’s funeral,” Indyk recalled, in a transcript published by PBS. “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… 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.’
“So I think 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. He exploited that and ran against Oslo in the  elections and beat [Shimon] Peres, but he only beat him by something like a half of 1 percent,” he added.
Netanyahu on Wednesday stridently denied having made comments to that effect at Rabin’s funeral.
Indyk’s anecdote was one of many that were related Tuesday night in a two-hour-long PBS “Frontline” documentary, in which advisers for the Israeli prime minister and US President Barack Obama traded tales – and barbs – to advance their perspectives on how and why the relationship between the two allied states went so sour in recent years. The film, which is scheduled to air again twice on the public television channel, and is available to stream online, was months in the making.
Covering Netanyahu’s life from his move to America as a seven-year-old through his March 2015 speech before Congress, the documentary purports to track his political trajectory, from his early days as a public diplomacy whiz kid through his rise to Likud leadership by way of his strident critique of the Oslo Accords and his tussles with president Bill Clinton, which prefigured the tension that would develop between him and Obama almost a decade later.
The military option
One major bone of contention, both sides agreed, was the US drive to sign a nuclear deal with Iran. At one point, with tensions between Jerusalem and Washington strained over the recently revealed nuclear talks, former White House adviser Dennis Ross warned Secretary of State John Kerry that Netanyahu had somehow gotten the wrong message that military action against Tehran was entirely off the table. The problem could be solved, the veteran negotiator told Kerry, if Obama – or at least the White House – made a quick follow-up call to the Israeli leader to clarify its position. The call, said Ross, never came.
That moment, in November 2013, was one of a number of situations in the past seven years in which relations between Israel and the United States could have taken a different turn, were it not for what PBS portrayed as a star-crossed relationship between the two country’s leaders.
That relationship, former White House adviser David Axelrod suggested, may have been plagued from the outset by Obama’s confidence that he could effect a change in the status quo between Israelis and Palestinians. “The history of Obama is a belief in his own ability to bring people of disparate views, cultures and backgrounds together to solve difficult problems,” he said.
To that end, Obama worked quickly upon taking office to try to solve the intractable, decades-old conflict. Some 48 hours after moving into the White House, Obama contacted George Mitchell, enlisting the veteran negotiator to take on the challenge of finding a resolution. Mitchell, however, is not certain that the enthusiasm was well-founded.
“The timing in early 2009 could not have been worse,” Mitchell said. “President Obama was sworn in four days after the war between Israel and Hamas had come to an end. Emotions were very high and very negative. There were a lot of feelings of hostility, feelings of victimization that were high on both sides.”
On the American side, the documentary, titled “Netanyahu at War,” further bolstered the narrative that in the Obama administration, the Israeli leader faced a battery of policymakers who saw him in an oppositional framework.
Veteran journalist Jeffrey Goldberg said that Obama confidant and chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel had warned the president “not to get played” by the prime minister, and Ross said that during Obama’s first term, “there was an instinctive feeling that Bibi will never do what he needs to do unless you pressure him” – a sensibility that Ross said was coupled with a desire to repair relations with the Muslim world as the basis for what could be termed a “daylight” strategy that put distance between Jerusalem and Washington.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
What ensued was, the documentary implied, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. On his first visit to the White House in May 2009, Netanyahu was surprised by Obama’s very public demand that he impose an immediate settlement freeze and was left feeling that he had walked into a trap, perceiving an adversarial relationship with the new president.
That impression was reinforced two weeks later, when Obama traveled to Cairo to deliver a historic speech to the Muslim world. “Israel had no advance warning of the Cairo speech,” complained then-Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren.
Again, Obama’s public condemnation of settlement activity – coupled with his apparent decision to skip Israel during that Middle Eastern trip – hit a raw nerve. Discussion of the missed trip to Israel – the president did visit Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt on that early trip – revealed the divisions that continue to this day among members of Obama’s first-term administration.
Obama adviser Ben Rhodes defended the decision not to go to Israel during that 2009 trip, saying that he thought the president would have been “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” – and that the Netanyahu government would have been dissatisfied no matter what.
Indyk, the former US ambassador, indicated that the decision may have been a mistake, a position shared by Mitchell in retrospect. “It would have been wise if the president had gone to Israel from there and gone on to make a statement of reassurance,” Mitchell told the cameras.
In episode after episode, the documentary described the stark differences between what journalist Ari Shavit called the “pessimistic” and “conservative” Netanyahu and the “progressive” and “optimistic” Obama.
In 2012, Washington was convinced that Israel would attack Iran “any day” but that “the White House had received no word as to whether Israel was going to strike” due to the complete breakdown of communication between the two states.
The Obama administration, said Rhodes, had concluded that such a strike would inevitably pull the US into a military conflict with Iran, a scenario that the administration feared – especially during an election year.
But while the Israeli attack never happened, Ross says that the White House and the president himself did become convinced that Netanyahu was using the election year to try and get leverage on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu took to the US political talk show circuit to call on the president to draw a “red line” on Iran and increasingly allied himself with Republican contender Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency.
The relationship between the two heads of state grew so frosty, Oren said, that Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting that fall, weeks before the election itself.
Netanyahu ‘wasn’t angry, but alarmed’
The situation further declined when the United States committed to backchannel negotiations with the Iranians in Oman – negotiations that Israel discovered by allegedly monitoring the travels of US emissaries Jake Sullivan and William Burns.
“We were confronted with a reality…in which our closest ally has secretly negotiated for seven months with our worst enemy,” Oren recalled.
Netanyahu’s personal frustration was evident shortly afterwards, Indyk said, when Kerry came to Israel and met with the prime minister at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Netanyahu, Indyk said, “had a really strong sense of betrayal. He was furious.”
“When Bibi gets upset he starts screaming and pounding the table,” Indyk recounted, saying he could hear the noise while standing outside the room where Netanyahu and Kerry were conducting a one-on-one meeting.
Shortly after that meeting, Netanyahu asked Ross, Obama’s former adviser, to come over on a Friday evening. Ross described waiting for almost an hour as the prime minister spoke with Obama, whom Ross said, tried to assuage the prime minister. The attempts were to no avail.
“As many times as I have dealt with Bibi, I have never seen him this way,” Ross recounted. “He wasn’t angry, but alarmed.” The reason? Netanyahu, according to Ross, was convinced that Obama had said the option of military force against Iran was off the table.
Ross called Kerry to tell him about the problem, and Kerry said he’d call Netanyahu to reassure him that the president had intended no such thing. Ross said that he told Kerry that the problem “needs to be fixed by the White House… and it wasn’t. He didn’t get a call.”
Netanyahu’s feeling of alarm and betrayal, the documentary suggested, set the stage for the next chain of events that further damaged the relationship: his speech before a partisan Congress blasting the Iran deal, and the bitter months of lobbying in which pro-Israel groups like AIPAC were enlisted to try and block the agreement.
“For [Netanyahu] to go on such a tear… was a huge mistake,” Indyk said. “If he loses, the president shows that he can stand up to Israel and the vaunted Israeli lobby, and that will be a lesson for some time.”