Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, long-time Prime Minister, is a controversial figure who has been one of the most influential figures in Israel in the past twenty years. He was Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988 and was Prime Minister the first time from 1996 to 1999. He was named Foreign Minister in 2002. He became Prime Minister a second time in March 2009. After agreeing to enter direct talks with Palestinians and embracing a two-party state solution, Netanyahu ruffled feathers in Washington and elsewhere by approving new construction in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 2010. In March 2015, he backtracked on his position on the two-party solution and declared that if he is re-elected, he would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. He was a staunch advocate for the Iraq war and has been a hawk on negotiations with Iran.
In these excerpts, Miles Pendleton, then Director of the Office of Israel and Arab-Israel Affairs 1982-1983, elaborates on the working relationship between the Israel Likud government and Washington. Dennis Jett, then Science Attaché in 1983, opines how Netanyahu’s outlook is a hindrance to peace. Philip Wilcox, then Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs from 1984-1987, Consul General in Jerusalem from 1988-1991, and Coordinator for Counter-terrorism from 1994-1997, discusses his view for peace in the Middle East and his disagreements with Netanyahu.
James Larocco, Deputy Chief of Missions and Chargé d’Affaires, Tel Aviv from 1993-1996 explains Netanyahu’s requirements for peace talks with Palestine. Wesley Egan, Ambassador to Jordan from 1994-1998, gives the Jordan King Hussein’s less than flattering perceptions of Netanyahu. Senator Charles Percy briefly describes his “disappointment” with Netanyahu.
All were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy: Pendleton beginning in June 1998, Jett beginning in March 2011, Wilcox beginning in April 1998, Larocco beginning in January 2011, Egan beginning in October 2003 and Senator Percy beginning in June 1998. You can also read about Ambassador Samuel Lewis’s run-in with Ariel Sharon, the negotiations behind the Camp David Peace Accords, as well as other Moments on the Middle East.
“We weren’t very happy with them, but they were the government”
Miles Pendleton, Director of Israel and Arab-Israel Affairs, 1982-1983
Q: How did we feel about the Likud government?
PENDLETON: Well, we weren’t very happy with them, but they were the government. And we weren’t very happy about their representatives in Washington, where Moshe Arens, who later became Defense Minister, was the Ambassador, and Bibi Netanyahu, who is now the Prime Minister, was the Deputy Chief of Mission [DCM].
Over in Jerusalem we were dealing with [Menachem] Begin and [Yitzhak] Shamir and others who were difficult to communicate with. But let me say this. We made every conceivable effort to communicate with the elected officials of Israel and to communicate in a way that was forthright and reflective of their concerns, to which we tried to allow room for a peace process and allow room for a number of our profound interests — including the plight of the Palestinian refugees –while at the same time respecting their security concerns. George Shultz led the way in this….
Bibi Netanyahu, as Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington, was plugged into everything and everybody, but our office heard from him almost daily about press guidance(what he thought should be in the State Department’s press guidance and what we were planning to put in it ourselves. He would call and he would talk with me or, more often than not, with Ed Abingdon, who had been the able acting director before I arrived. There was no shyness on Bibi’s part in terms of laying down the law as the Israeli embassy saw it….
It was much easier to warm to Bibi Netanyahu, who had extremely strong views but who was more engaging. Arens, to me, seemed a bit of a cold fish….Would I like to go on a camping trip with Moshe Arens? No, and maybe not with Bibi Netanyahu either.
“I don’t think Netanyahu has the vision or the guts to be a Begin”
Dennis Jett, Tel Aviv Science Attaché, 1983
JETT: [Former NSC Senior Director Eliot] Abrams was essentially writing this piece…saying that the Palestinians should just go and be part of Jordan. So to this day you’ve got people like that and I think essentially that’s where the right-wing Israelis, Likud, Netanyahu all are.
I don’t see much prospect for peace because I don’t think Netanyahu has the vision or the guts to be a Begin and sit down and do a deal and the only way he can stay in power is with a coalition of religious parties that are even more extreme than he is.
They are continuing to build settlements on the West Bank and Gaza; this is something that both the Likud and Labor governments have done consistently throughout the decades, which allowed the settlements to continue to grow.
Now you have 300,000 settlers who think they have a Biblical right to cheap housing on somebody else’s land. They are a powerful lobby and Israeli governments are always coalitions and generally pretty weak. In the same way the Tea Party today represent a minority of a minority and yet they are having this impact because they are fanatics and dictating policy for the Republicans. I think, in the same way the settlers essentially hijacked Israeli policy and have made serious negotiations impossible.
“I fear that the present Minister Netanyahu has a different vision that is bad for Israel”
Philip Wilcox, Jr.
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Near East Affairs
WILCOX: I think that the ultimate security for Israel lies not in creating a military fortress confronting its Arab neighbors, but in making peace with them. In order to make peace on a broader level beyond just Egypt and Jordan, the Israelis will have to make a deal with the Palestinians. The Arab states by and large are ambivalent about the Palestinians. They have postured about the Palestinian cause, but they have done little for the Palestinians.
Indeed some Arab leaders may see the Palestinians as a threat because the Palestinians, in part because of their proximity to the Israelis over the years have developed a more progressive approach to politics. The Palestinians are also energetic business people and generally well educated. Until recently, there was ambivalence in the Arab Middle East about a Palestinian state which might become a democracy and serve as a destabilizing example for Arabs ruled by autocratic regimes.
The security dilemma for Israel is real because Israel was created on land which was taken from the Palestinians in war, a great many of whom were expelled by force. However, 50 years later, Israel has become a powerful, successful state. No Arab government today believes that Israel can be dislodged or that it is a temporary phenomenon.
Back in the ‘70s, Arabs used to talk about how the crusaders came to and left Palestine and that Israel would go the same way. I don’t think any Arab politician believes that today. Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has less salience for them now as the increasingly realize that they have got to deal with their own internal problems to survive, and that they cannot wave the anti-Zionist banner as a way of diverting public attention from their own misgovernment or failures.
So the Arab states no longer present a significant security threat to Israel, which is vastly stronger, and most of them are prepared to follow Egypt and Jordan and make peace with Israel and establish relations if Israel can negotiate a fair deal with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians have no military wherewithal and understand better than anyone that Israel is a powerful and permanent state. On the other hand, the huge Palestinian community can make life unpleasant for Israelis if there is no fair peace settlement. The Palestinians are also there to stay, and they are not going to abandon their cause.
A comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace thus depends on resolving the Palestinian issue. Peace with the Palestinians and all the Arabs does not mean they will love each other.
The legacy of the Arab-Israeli wars and the Palestinian issue will go on for many years. The Israelis will not become Palestinian nationalists, and the Palestinians will not become Zionists. But love isn’t necessary to achieve peace.
Israel by virtue of its small size and exposed borders in a region of the world that will probably be unstable, even after an Arab-Israeli peace, will retain strong military forces. But military superiority will not achieve peace with the Palestinians and an end to this conflict as long as Israel continues to occupy most of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
This conflict is not primordial, and can be resolved. Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and Jerusalem make a territorial division more difficult, but this can still be done and a Palestinian state can be created that will be acceptable to Palestinians. If so, the Arabs will fall in line.
As for whether Palestinians are untrustworthy, I mistrust such ethnic stereotypes. People sometimes act in their own interest, sometimes they don’t. The Palestinians are now acting in their own interest in opting for a compromise. I think they made a profound and wise decision to shift from rejectionist, confrontation and violence to the search for peace. Ex-Prime Minister Rabin deserves the same credit for accepting the need for doing that.
I fear that the present Minister Netanyahu has a different vision that is bad for Israel, not to mention the Palestinians….
Netanyahu’s Conditions for Peace with the Palestinians
DCM and Chargé d’Affaires, Tel Aviv 1993-1996
LAROCCO: When I was Charge, I had access to both parties. When I was DCM, I mostly dealt with the opposition party, in this case the Likud. To be honest, they were not treated well by Washington, especially the peace team. They were shunned because they simply would not embrace the peace process and were looking for every opportunity to thwart progress.
But these were formidable political actors, strong leaders, sharp minds and representative in many ways of a majority of Israelis. The coalition supporting Rabin had the votes in the Knesset, but I never felt they had the hearts and minds of the majority of Israelis.
I recall one day going to see Netanyahu. He was alone in his office, and I was alone. He was fuming over his treatment by the peace team during the visits of our senior leaders, when he would be kept waiting or wouldn’t get meetings till late at night. I made no comment, simply listening to him vent.
I turned to the peace process, and he launched into a monologue about how misguided it was. At one point I asked him directly: will you ever support peace with the Palestinians, and if so on what terms? I will never forget his response.
First, Israel must be economically secure. We are not now. We are a struggling economy, stifled by the powerful labor union Histadrut, miserable financial and tax policies and total lack of competitiveness with the international market. We must not make peace until we can stand on our own, with a vibrant economy that is the real guarantee of economic security.
The second condition, he continued, is population. I feel we must have a Jewish population of perhaps 8 million before we can be secure as a state with a Palestinian state side by side with us. That is a sufficient population to enshrine our identity and our majority.
Third, we must have a presence in the Jordan Valley. That is our most vulnerable border. We can never abandon that area.
Netanyahu pulled out a map that showed a Swiss cheese like Palestinian state, with settlements or outposts breaking up much of the contiguity of a Palestinian state, particularly on the West Bank.
I never got the impression he had an emotional attachment to the settlements; in his view, they were strategic.
Netanyahu’s clout, as far as the U.S. was concerned, was at its lowest ebb at the time, so his views were considered irrelevant. What he thought didn’t matter to analysts in Washington. So much has happened in the past twenty years since that conversation, including the peace treaty with Jordan, so I have no idea where Netanyahu’s red lines are now.
But Israel has certainly achieved one of his objectives: an economic vibrancy and sustainability that is a marvel of the modern day. And he was instrumental in making that happen.
“He has helped advance his career by manipulating the issue of terrorism”
Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, 1994-1997
Q: How did you find cooperation with the Israelis on terrorism?
WILCOX: Very close. The Israelis have needless to say a deep historic concern about terrorism. Their doctrine is different from ours. They carry out assassinations of terrorist suspects to punish and deter terrorism. We prohibit that by executive order. Their policy has contributed to a cycle of terrorist violence, rather than deterring terrorism. For example, there is evidence that the rash of horrible suicide bombings in Israel may have been provoked by Israel’s assassination of Ayash, the Palestinian Hamas bombing expert. I think it is a crazy policy, but the Israeli public supports it.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has helped advance his career by manipulating the issue of terrorism and preaching that terrorism is really the cause of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinian conflict rather than a symptom of it. He cleverly emphasizes the terrorist threat to obfuscate the real causes of the conflict and uses it to argue that the Palestinians do not really want peace.
Netanyahu has argued that there can be no serious negotiations until the terrorism stops, and he holds Yasser Arafat fully responsible for further acts of terrorism. Arafat has not been as vigorous as he should have been in dealing with terrorists, for example, HAMAS the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who oppose him as well as Israel, and he is sensitive to criticism from his own constituency that he should not be Israel’s policeman.
He has tried to negotiate with these groups to pacify them, but this has not always succeeded. On the other hand, he does not have full control. His security services do not have the capability of stopping this threat altogether any more than the Israelis did when their armies occupied the entire West Bank and Gaza.
“Hussein simply couldn’t tolerate, didn’t trust him, thought he was deceitful”
Wesley Egan, Ambassador to Jordan, 1994-1998
EGAN: When eventually Netanyahu became Prime Minister, this was a man who Hussein simply couldn’t tolerate, didn’t trust him, thought he was deceitful, felt he represented an element of the Israeli domestic politics that was contrary to the interests of peace and to Jordan’s own stability. Whenever he could, he chose not to deal with him.
When [Ehud] Barak became Prime Minister [in 1999], the King felt that this was the closest he was ever going to get again to a personality like [Yitzhak] Rabin. Barak shared a military background and, at least in the early days, a military man’s approach to these issues. He was eager to develop a relationship with the King. They worked fairly well together.
I think had the King lived beyond February of 1999 certainly through the beginning of the Second Intifada in September of 2000, his relationship with Barak would have deteriorated rapidly.
Netanyahu was the Prime Minister when Mossad attempted to assassinate the Hamas political operative in Amman, Khalid Meshal. I think as far as the King was concerned, this was just the kind of stuff you’d expect from Netanyahu.
Q: Were you sharing, particularly with our embassy in Tel Aviv, concern about Netanyahu?
EGAN: Absolutely. [We reported] what the King’s reaction was, why he felt this way, how they were going to deal with Netanyahu on this issue, how they would respond to him on this issue, what I thought we ought to be doing about the relationship with these people….
I had never had any hesitation telling both Washington and my counterpart in Tel Aviv what was on the King’s mind and why and what I thought the right thing to do about it was. I trusted them and I worked to protect the confidential nature of those relationships….
That view on the Jordanian side was that this [man Netanyahu] was a very smart, brutishly ambitious political personality who had zero interest in resolving any of the final status issues of the peace process: withdrawing from the West Bank, removing settlements, negotiating the creation and the sustained existence of the Palestinian state. That he had no hesitation about taking steps that undermined Jordan if they served his purposes and what he perceived to be the purpose of the state of Israel.
Which is why when Mossad tried to assassinate the Hamas political operative in Amman during Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister, that kind of move didn’t surprise the King or the Crown Prince or the head of Jordanian intelligence. That was to them very much in character. They did not like him. He had no redeeming grace as far as they were concerned and they did not think he was good for the state of Israel.
“Netanyahu was a great disappointment to me”
Senator Charles H. Percy, 1999
PERCY: Netanyahu was a great disappointment to me. I noted that he was a student in this country, and upon leaving the Senate I headed the Institute of International Education for five years, covering all foreign students in this country and all American students who go abroad.
I have found that when they are students here, just like a majority of the King of Saudi Arabia’s cabinet graduated, got their Ph.D. from universities in this country, that they understand our country so much better. Actually the relationship with Israel, they understand that much better.
I originally thought with Netanyahu there would be such understanding. Not only that, he was Israeli Ambassador in New York to the United Nations. But he was very extreme. And I was terribly disappointed in the way he approached the peace process.