JERUSALEM — The phone call between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lasted 45 minutes. For 43 of them, she talked and he listened.
The U.S. secretary of state lectured the Israeli leader, accusing him of trying to do an end run around American opposition to settlement-building and embarrassing Vice President Biden during a visit to Israel, according to interviews with people present during the 2010 call or who were briefed on it afterward. She read from a script for part of the lecture, so as not to miss any key points.
“The word ‘humiliation’ appeared very prominently,” recalled Michael Oren, then the Israeli ambassador in Washington. “As in ‘You have humiliated the United States of America.’ ”
There probably aren’t many times in Netanyahu’s professional life when he has listened to anyone for 43 minutes. Netanyahu prefers to do the lecturing, as he will Tuesday when he addresses a joint meeting of Congress over the objections of the Obama administration.
And there aren’t many people who could make Netanyahu sit still for a tongue-lashing. Clinton is one of them.
“I was often the designated yeller,” Clinton said last year.
Should Clinton win the presidency in 2016, her long and complicated history with Netanyahu will enter a new phase. If Netanyahu survives an election this month, the same issues that cloud the U.S.-Israel relationship now — negotiations with the Palestinians and a disagreement over outreach to Iran that turned sharply bitter over Netanyahu’s Tuesday address — will almost certainly still fester.
From Netanhayu’s perspective, Clinton would be an improvement over President Obama, who has all but washed his hands of an Israeli leader he finds overbearing, Israeli officials and observers said in interviews here.
But there is also little doubt that Netanyahu would prefer a more hawkish Republican in the White House, these observers said. The question is how brazenly he will make that preference known, as he did in 2012 when he was widely perceived as supporting Obama’s GOP opponent, Mitt Romney.
Clinton hosted Netanyahu at the White House as first lady, and their relationship grew more substantive when she was a reliable pro-Israel voice in the Senate and dispenser of tough love to the Israeli government during Obama’s first term.
As secretary of state, Clinton defended Israeli security demands and sharply criticized settlement policies.
On orders from the White House, she demanded a total freeze of settlement expansion — a demand that made Netanyahu livid.
She also praised him publicly for taking “unprecedented” steps toward peace, defended Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip in 2012 and nudged Netanyahu into a cease-fire with old-fashioned shuttle diplomacy.
“I learned that Bibi would fight if he felt he was being cornered, but if you connected with him as a friend, there was a chance you could get something done together,” Clinton wrote in her State Department memoir last year.
That chance appears remote now, at the nadir of Netanyahu’s relationship with the Obama administration.
The White House considers the Israeli leader’s address to Congress partisan meddling intended to sink a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Democrats complain it is another example of Netanyahu’s undisguised preference for Republicans, and many plan to boycott. Netanyahu is speaking at the invitation of the Republican-led Congress.
Netanyahu says he has no choice, because the emerging deal leaves Israel exposed to a potential nuclear strike.
“I respect the White House and the U.S. president. But on a serious subject, it’s my duty to do everything for Israel’s security,” Netanyahu said at a campaign rally last week.
The speech reflects an utter break between Netanyahu and Obama. In bypassing the White House and scheduling Tuesday’s speech just before Israelis vote in a national election, Netanyahu had “injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate,” national security adviser Susan E. Rice said on PBS last week, “I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who succeeded Clinton as secretary of state in 2013, sought to play down any tensions Sunday, however. “We have an unparalleled close security relationship with Israel, and we will continue to,” Kerry said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The U.S. critiques are being delivered indirectly now, in contrast with the 2010 Clinton phone call.
Netanyahu will not see Obama, Biden or Kerry during his brief visit to Washington. The White House has offered a diplomatic fig leaf, saying it would be unseemly to host Netanyahu so close to the March 17 elections. Netanyahu is not likely to cross paths with Clinton either, although she is delivering a speech in Washington on Tuesday evening.
Netanyahu is also addressing a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday. Clinton, a frequent speaker in years past, will not address the group.
She has said nothing about the controversy surrounding Netanyahu’s congressional speech but is on the record as strongly supporting the Obama administration’s approach to negotiating with Iran.
The goal of international talks now nearing a deadline this month is a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program and ensure it cannot be quickly converted to bomb-making. Clinton told an audience in Canada in January that the talks, initiated by secret contacts during her tenure as top diplomat, would be damaged by any new Iran sanctions applied by Congress.
Clinton’s tough line with Netanyahu was born of a two-decades-old acquaintance built on wary respect and a shared sense that each can do business with the other.
Their relationship did not seem to suffer from the rougher patches during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, officials said. Clinton and Netanyahu made a point of showing no hard feelings when Clinton visited Israel just two months after the March 2010 settlement debacle and telephonic dressing-down.
Clinton quotes Netanyahu from his brief portion of that phone call in her 2014 State Department memoir, “Hard Choices.”
“Let me assure you and the president that the timing was entirely unintentional and unfortunate,” she said Netanyahu told her.
“I didn’t enjoy playing the bad cop, but it was part of the job,” Clinton wrote.
The longtime Likud leader and the likely Democratic presidential contender have sparred and made up enough times to regard one another as worthy adversaries, U.S. and Israeli officials and former officials said. They are familiar with one another in public — she calls him “Bibi.” He calls her “Hillary.” But they are not close personal friends.
“Her relationship with him is very bad, just not as toxic as Obama’s,” said Alon Pinkas, who was Israel’s consul general in New York when Clinton was a pro-Israel senator from New York.
“As much as it is replete with dislikes and misunderstandings, the relationship has the potential to succeed” if both politicians face one another as national leaders in 2017, Pinkas added. “I suspect it won’t, because he can’t help himself.”
Many other observers, including Israeli and U.S. officials who would not speak for the record, described the relationship in more optimistic terms.
“They have a long relationship of mutual intellectual respect,” Oren said. “They both are very, very smart people, and people of very strong physical stamina.”
Other similarities: ambition, determination and a shared declaration that the bond between their two nations may stretch thin at times but will never break.
In her memoir, Clinton calls Netanyahu a “complicated figure” whose hawkish views were shaped by his military and family experiences.
“Despite our policy differences, Netanyahu and I worked together as partners and friends. We argued frequently, often during phone calls that would go on for over an hour, sometimes two. But even when we disagreed, we maintained an unshakable commitment to the alliance between our countries,” Clinton wrote.
When Clinton was first lady and Netanyahu was the opposition Likud leader and then prime minister, she and then-President Bill Clinton chafed at Netanyahu’s perceived cozy relationship with the Clintons’ adversaries. His Republican contacts included then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and evangelical leader Ralph Reed.
For his part, Netanyahu was outraged in 1999 when Hillary Clinton sat by as Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s wife, Suha, accused Israel of poisoning Palestinians and then closed their joint appearance with an embrace.
Clinton and Netanyahu dealt with one another occasionally during the years Clinton was in the Senate and Netanyahu held two cabinet posts. He returned as prime minister in 2009, the year that Clinton — having lost the 2008 Democratic presidential nominating contest — joined Obama’s Cabinet as secretary of state.
Netanyahu has been the top Israeli leader for all but a few months of the Obama administration, and he called early elections in anticipation of keeping the job. Although opposition figure Isaac Herzog leads slightly in national polls, Netanyahu has the better chance of forming a government, Israeli and U.S. officials said.
Clinton became the chief public voice for the administration’s insistence on a settlement freeze in 2009, despite her misgivings that it set too high a bar for Israel. Although viewed as friendlier to Israeli security arguments than Obama, she never wavered from the administration line in her dealings with Netanyahu, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
“There was no wink and a nod, no ‘This is what we’re asking, but I really think something different,’ ” said one official who was present in many of their meetings.
Netanyahu rejected the U.S. position out of hand, however, and in her book, Clinton called the U.S. position misguided. “In retrospect, our early hard line on settlements didn’t work,” she wrote.
Under pressure from Clinton and U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell, Netanyahu adopted a partial, time-limited freeze to help set the tone for talks.
A 10-month moratorium went into effect in late 2009, but it did not lead to productive or sustained negotiations. Clinton jawboned Netanyahu for more than five hours to extend the moratorium during a meeting in New York in September 2010. Although he eventually agreed, Netanyahu could not sell the extension to his cabinet and the moratorium expired.
The Palestinian peace issue largely languished for the remainder of Obama’s first term. Kerry resumed an intensive push for a settlement that fell apart nearly a year ago despite his long association with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
If Netanyahu and Obama have written off hopes for their relationship during Obama’s nearly two years left in office, Netanyahu may see brighter prospects for the next president.
Netanyahu’s Likud party is ideologically close to traditional Republican policy positions, and Netanyahu has not been shy about his connections to Republicans including Romney, an old friend from Netanyahu’s years living in the United States.
None of the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls appears likely to try to muscle Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue, and many of them share his doubts on the potential Iran deal.
Netanyahu posted a Twitter message thanking likely Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush for supporting his Iran speech.
“You’re welcome Mr. Prime Minister, I’m anxious to hear what you have to say!” replied the former Florida governor.
Should Clinton win the White House, however, she and Netanyahu would probably forge an efficient bond, U.S. and Israeli observers said.
“I’d bet that under either a third Bush or a second Clinton, things might not be great between the United States and Netanyahu, but they would be better than they are right now,” Wilson Center Mideast scholar Aaron David Miller wrote last week in Foreign Policy.
The Iran deal at issue now is likely to be resolved before the 2016 election, but not the underlying fear for Israelis that Iran remains what Netanyahu calls an “existential” threat next door. Clinton is on record voicing much the same concern, along with doubts that Iran would abide by any deal it struck.
If a deal is signed, Clinton would carry it forward but would probably also find ways to reassure Netanyahu that the United States will not be hoodwinked.
And unless the West Bank security and political situation deteriorates rapidly or Netanyahu severely overplays his hand on settlements, a President Hillary Clinton would be unlikely to push Netanyahu very far on a peace settlement, U.S. and Israeli observers said.
A prevailing view among Mideast watchers is that the next big U.S. peace push would probably wait for a different Israeli leader.
“She will keep good relations with Netanyahu if he gives her a semblance of movement, and they can all kick the can together,” said a senior Israeli official who requested anonymity because Netanyahu has not yet secured another term.
“Hillary can’t afford to fight Netanyahu unless she has a smoking gun, and he’s too smart to give her a smoking gun.”
William Booth and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Jose A. DelReal in Washington contributed to this report.