Barak Ravid
Haaretz (Opinion)
December 22, 2011 - 1:00am

Some two months ago, the Prime Minister's Office received a request to arrange a conference call with some Jewish and Christian leaders. The proposal was to sponsor an event of a routine kind – Netanyahu gets on the line, gives a short briefing about the "situation," fires off some relevant advocacy points, and then answers questions, making a concerted effort not to supply fodder for headlines.

But, in the end, the conference call was not held. The Prime Minister's advisers, who asked the proposers of the idea for details about who would be involved in the call, discovered that it would be a two-part conversation. During the first part, Netanyahu would speak and he would be followed immediately by Newt Gingrich, who is currently vying for the Republican nomination in the U.S. Presidential race.

In contrast to the embarrassing affair of the revised remarks declaimed at the memorial service for victims of the Carmel fire, this time Netanyahu's aides came to their senses in a timely fashion, politely apologized to the conference call organizers, and cancelled the Prime Minister's involvement in the call.

"We realized that were we to hold this conference call we would be seen as intervening in internal American politics, or even as supporting Gingrich's candidacy," explained one of Netanyahu's advisers. "You have to be very careful and sensitive during this period, especially when some persons want to drag us into an argument."

For more than two years, Israel has been part of the domestic political debate in the U.S. From an issue that united Democrats and Republicans, Israel has turned into a topic about which the two parties exchange barbs. Persons close to President Obama view Benjamin Netanyahu as being responsible for this change, and blame him for meddling in American politics, and for forging alliances with Republicans.

Echoes of this were sounded in a column published by Tom Friedman in The New York Times. Friedman, who is close to President Obama and reviles Prime Minister Netanyahu, played a top role in the instigation of a letter sent by Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer to The New York Times, in which he accused the paper of regularly distorting positions uphold by Israel's government.

"I sure hope that Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics," opined Friedman. "That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby." Friedman subsequently apologized for a portion of his remarks, but on a factual level, it was Republican Congressmen from Texas who proposed that Netanyahu deliver the speech and who moved the event forward. Not just Netanyahu's welfare concerned them; they hoped also to deliver a blow to Obama.

An Evangelical Conference turned into a Republican Election Rally

When Netanyahu and his aides are asked, they insist that they make every effort to avoid meddling in domestic American politics. The speech in Congress, they say, bore witness to widespread support for Israel and for Netanyahu among both parties. Netanyahu, they insist, makes a point of meeting with virtually any member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, who comes to Israel, and in every speech before an American audience, he emphasizes that Israel must remain a non-partisan issue in the U.S.

Three months ago, he even upbraided MK Danny Danon for taking part in a joint press conference with Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry in which the Texas Governor dumped a bucket of acerbic accusations at President Obama. "We try all the time not to step on such land mines," explained one of Netanyahu's aides.

There is some truth in such protestations voiced by the Prime Minister's associates. More than once, Netanyahu has been the victim of Republican spin-masters who tried to gain political capital in the U.S. from meetings with him. For instance, a month ago, three evangelical pastors arrived from Florida to Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who has a connection with one of the pastors, asked that Netanyahu receive them for a meeting in his office.

Netanyahu responded affirmatively, and sat with the trio for 45 minutes. At the end of the meeting Hispanic pastor Guillermo Maldonado whipped out a small video camera and asked Netanyahu to be filmed reciting a short greeting, to be broadcast at an evangelical conference he is organizing for Orlando in April. Surprised, Netanyahu assented, but asked to film the greeting at a later time.

About a week later, an invitation to the conference started to circulate on the internet, which featured Netanyahu's photograph, alongside Republican candidates Michelle Bachman and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who are supported by the radical-right Tea Party groups. The invitation caption referred to a 2012 Awakening. Netanyahu's office came across this invitation after it had circulated among tens of thousands of Florida residents. It can be assumed that Netanyahu won't send a filmed greeting to the event.

Greetings for Glenn Beck, friendship with Newt Gingrich

Complaints vented by Netanyahu's aides about how they are dragged into domestic American politics seem a bit peculiar when they are considered against the backdrop of steps taken by the Prime Minister in past months. For instance, Netanyahu unhesitatingly sent a filmed greeting to an award ceremony staged by the Zionist Organization of America in honor of controversial radio personality Glenn Beck, who devotes the bulk of his broadcasts to attacks against President Obama:

"Glenn You too have been fearless in defending Israel against the slanders that are hurled against [it]. You’ve done that with considerable personal cost, but you’ve never backed off, you’ve never flinched, and I want to tell you how deeply we appreciate this stand of courage and integrity," commented Netanyahu.

Those who sponsored the award given to Beck were Sheldon and Miri Adelson. Adelson, a Jewish gambling mogul, is the owner of Netanyahu’s house newspaper Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today) and is considered one of the main donors to his election campaign.

Alongside Glenn Beck and Bibi Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson proffered support for leading Republican politician Newt Gingrich, the same candidate with whom Netanyahu was warily disinclined to engage in the conference call. Between 2006 and 2010, Adelson donated $7 million to Gingrich's "American Solutions" institute.

Gingrich has known Netanyahu since his days as opposition chairman in the 1990s. The Republican politician was Speaker of the House at the time; he forged an alliance with Netanyahu, helping the Israeli opposition leader's attempts to block assistance which President Bill Clinton gave to the Oslo process.

Former Israel Ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich claimed in an interview with the Jewish newspaper, the Forward, that Netanyahu encouraged Gingrich to pressure Clinton, and that Israel's embassy had to carry out "damage control" regarding laws that Gingrich sponsored to block the conferral of assistance to the newly created Palestinian Authority.

In recent weeks, Gingrich has voiced a series of declarations whose contents and tenor make anything said by Netanyahu sound as though the Prime Minister is Yossi Beilin. Gingrich promised that if elected President, he would move America's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; he branded the Palestinians an "invented nation," and he even stated that he would consider releasing the incarcerated spy, Jonathan Pollard. Meantime, Gingrich's candidacy seems stalled, and he is unable, for now, to close the gap against Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.

Campaign in Israel Today

Adelson backs Gingrich's candidacy in the Presidential race not only in the U.S. He is promoting Gingrich in Israel. In May 2010, more than half a year before he declared his candidacy, Gingrich published in the Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Today an article in which he claimed that the Obama administration's policy toward Iran and terror is completely divorced from reality; he warned that this policy could bring about a "second Holocaust" of the Jewish people.

Last January, Israel Today editor Amos Regev traveled to Washington to interview Gingrich. In the extended interview, Gingrich, described by Regev as "an Israel-supporting American patriot,” attacked Obama, and gave Israel a "green light" to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

In recent months, Adelson's newspaper has provided Gingrich the same sort of unqualified support it proffers to Netanyahu. Almost all of Gingrich's statements, and polls which forecast his victory in Republican primaries, receive ample coverage in this freely distributed newspaper; sometimes they are splashed on the front page.

Dror Eidar, one of Israel Today's leading columnists, wrote a few days ago that Gingrich is a "refreshing phenomenon" in America's liberal-tainted seas. He praised Gingrich's statement regarding the Palestinian people, and called the Republican politician "a courageous intellectual who knows history well, and doesn't acquiesce to mumbo jumbo."

Netanyahu's natural allies – conservative evangelicals

Netanyahu doesn't exactly maintain balanced relations with America's two political camps. He is deeply rooted in the conservative camp, and shows disdain for the "naivete" of the Democratic party's liberal wing, from which Barack Obama emerged. As with Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, his natural allies are evangelicals and members of the Tea Party movement.

Netanyahu and his associates are close to the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) organization, which is comprised mainly of evangelicals who believe that Israel's existence is a necessary precondition for the return of the Messiah, and the coming of redemption. In their eyes, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who threatens to destroy Israel, is nothing less than an agent of Satan on earth.

Each year, Netanyahu delivers a satellite address to thousands of participants at CUFI's conference in Washington. "Our enemies think that we are you and that you are us," exclaimed Netanyahu at July’s CUFI conference. "You know something? They are absolutely right."

An example of how closely the Christian right is tied to Netanyahu could be gleaned from an email distributed among tens of thousands of evangelical supporters prior to Netanyahu's appearance at the UN this September. These activists were asked to fill out a form, and send letters of support to Netanyahu. "Prime Minister Netanyahu will be entering a lions den," the email declared. "When it comes to Israel, the UN is hostile territory… Join me in telling Prime Minister Netanyahu that millions of Christians stand with him."

When it comes to Israel, Evangelical Christians represent one of the strongest lobby groups on Capitol Hill. They exert powerful influence within the Republican party, and will play a part in the selection of its next candidate for the Presidency. That is a key reason why virtually all the Republican candidates vie with one another to release flamboyantly pro-Israel statements – they know that such utterances are music to the evangelicals' ears.

"Evangelicals in the U.S. will support any Israeli prime minister," one of Netanyahu's aides explained. "But they regard Netanyahu as a rock star." Whether or not he is a rock star, Netanyahu and his people know that in all likelihood, Barack Obama is not going anywhere. For Netanyahu, a second Obama Presidency will be another story altogether, not necessarily a good one.


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