WASHINGTON (JTA) – As U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton spent plenty of time in daunting foreign territory.
No, I’m not talking about Myanmar here. I’m speaking of the mind of Benjamin Netanyahu.
A batch of emails released this week as part of the trove related to the controversy over Clinton’s use of a personal email address while serving as secretary of state includes the solicitation of advice on how to deal not just with the Israeli prime minister’s policies, but with his personality.
Some of her interlocutors advise embracing him. Others suggest slapping him down. No one much likes him.
The advice – at least what was solicited on her personal email – comes from associates who were not in government at the time of writing, among them Sidney Blumenthal, Martin Indyk and Sandy Berger.
All three are Jewish. All three worked for President Bill Clinton when he had his own difficult relationship with Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999. Blumenthal was a political adviser, Berger was national security councilor and Indyk was ambassador to Israel.
All three were in the private sector or the think tank world when they sent their notes to Hillary Clinton (Indyk later returned to the State Department as an Israeli-Palestinian peace broker in 2013-14, after she left office). And all three are likely to play a role in her administration should Clinton be elected president — she is currently polling as the Democratic front-runner.
In a memo dated Sept. 30 2010, when the Obama administration was hoping to extend peace talks with the Palestinians past a period of a settlement freeze, Indyk argues for the importance of assuaging Netanyahu’s insecurities.
“The reason for dwelling on Bibi’s psychology rather than his politics is that the latter all point in favor of making a deal,” Indyk writes. One of the key obstacles to advancing the talks, according to Indyk’s email: Netanyahu “seems to lack a generosity of spirit. This combines with his legendary fear of being a ‘freier’ (sucker) in front of his people.”
His counsel: “Put your arms around Bibi: he still thinks we are out to bring him down. There is no substitute for working with him, even though he makes it such a frustrating process.”
Berger, similarly, describes the difficulties of Netanyahu’s personality and the need to coddle him in a memo dated Aug. 24, 2010, when direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians resumed for a short period.
Arab interlocutors are difficult, Berger says, but at least make clear what they will and will not accept. Netanyahu, he says, “either does not know himself or is not prepared to share.”
Again, while Berger says that Clinton at times will have to be “tough” and push back against Netanyahu’s “most extreme demands,” he sees value in cultivating Netanyahu as a friend and confidante.
“You are ideally suited to begin a series of in-depth conversations aimed at understanding his key concerns, how they can be met, what he would need from us and others,” Berger writes.
Blumenthal peppers Clinton with advice frequently throughout her 2009-13 term as secretary of state, much of it examining polls. One from March 23, 2010 includes two polls of Israelis and American Jews on how each regards Obama.
“The institutional U.S. Jewish position backing Bibi and against the administration does not have majority support among Jews,” he says, referring to a poll by the liberal pro-Israel Middle East lobby group J Street.
Blumenthal plumbs the media for evidence of Netanyahu’s duplicity, sending along a July 15, 2010 Tablet Magazine account of a 2001 video in which Netanyahu boasts to a group of settlers of his first-term maneuvers contra Bill Clinton: “America is a thing you can move very easily.”
In a March 21, 2010 memo, Blumenthal refers Clinton to an article by left-wing journalist Uri Avnery that praises the U.S. administration – Clinton included – for dealing toughly with Netanyahu after the fiasco involving the announcement of new building in eastern Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.
Clinton apparently contemplated using some of Avnery’s arguments in a speech she was about to deliver to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference.
“How – and should – I use this?” she asks Blumenthal, referring to her AIPAC address the next day. He promises her a follow-up memo, and she nudges him as evening approaches: “Are you sending?” He promises yes, in 15 minutes. Whether Blumenthal sent a memo is not clear. Clinton did not directly cite Avnery in her speech. But Netanyahu’s psyche was never far from her mind.
On May 31, 2010, after the Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ship attempting to breach Israel’s Gaza Strip blockade resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish nationals and a severe rupture in Turkey-Israel relations, she forwards Blumenthal’s thoughts to Jake Sullivan, the State Department’s director of policy planning.
“Bibi’s Entebbe in reverse,” Blumenthal muses, referring to the triumphant 1976 Israeli commando raid on a plane held hostage in Uganda that killed Netanyahu’s older brother, Yoni.
“The father, Benzion, 100 years old, secretary to [Revisionist Zionist pioneer Zeev] Jabotinsky, and denounced as too radical by [Jabotinsky heir and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, adored his son Yoni, heroically killed at Entebbe,” Blumenthal writes. “Benjamin has never measured up.”
Clinton has two notes to Sullivan: “FYI”– for your information – and “ITYS,” I told you so.