The true story of Bibi Netanyahu’s role in Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election. How political revenge and a corruption trial endangered an alliance.
The unbelievably warm temperatures that signaled an early start to summer may have been to blame, but President Barack Obama’s famously relaxed demeanor was not on display on this June morning in 2009.
The world’s eyes were on Number 44, and his mood showed it. The newly inaugurated president took plenty of flack from Republicans as Iranians took to the streets.
I wasn’t having my best morning either. As the newly appointed executive producer of the CBS News Early Show, I was about to be late for an interview with the president of the United States.
A perfect storm roiled that morning, raining out a special broadcast live from the USS Intrepid and delaying my flight from New York to DC. Then, I was dropped off at the wrong White House gate—my DC colleagues’ idea of a hazing ritual, I thought.
With my hopes and dreams flashing before my eyes, and the temperature soaring, I ran the perimeter of the White House to find the correct entrance.
Robert Gibbs, Obama’s spokesperson, grabbed me on the way inside.
“We’ve changed things around on you,” Gibbs said, maintaining his cheerfulness, as he improvised reactions to real-time events.
“Harry is doing the Iran interview,” Gibbs said, referring to Harry Smith, the unflappable anchor of the CBS Early Show.
With those words, the interview went from casual to historically consequential in a matter of seconds.
Thankfully, Harry could handle anything, especially with this president. Harry was an early and regular reporter on Obama’s campaign.
I was drenched from the sweat or rain, or both, so much so that the White House butler offered me a napkin. I wiped my brow and made a mental note to take on less responsibility in the future. I pocketed the napkin embossed with the White House logo. I still have it today.
Three weeks earlier, Obama embarked on his first Middle east trip in pursuit of two critical and interconnected foreign policy initiatives: a Middle east peace deal and an Iranian nuclear solution.
Obama delivered a watershed address at Cairo University, lamenting the decades of blood spilled from proxy wars in the region, and offered the Arab world a new beginning. It was American-style democracy beginning a Middle East tour.
Democracy activists viewed the Cairo Address as a green light to confront the region’s dictatorial regimes. The series of protests, uprisings, and attempted revolutions that followed in the next few years became known as the ‘Arab Spring.’
In the end, democracy failed to usher a new era of openness into the region. While the Arab spring underlined the need for reform in the Middle East, the movement also exposed the limitations of democracy as an alternative to autocracy.
Obama gave democracy a moonshot chance at success in the Middle East, but it didn’t work. World leaders were left wondering, “Now what?”
THE WORLD IS WATCHING
At the White House, a crew member placed a microphone on the lapel of Obama’s jacket. The president was in the zone.
A week earlier, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the Iranian election despite allegations that the vote had been rigged. Supporters of second-placed Mir-Hoessein Mousavi demanded a recount, taking to the streets in what became known as the Green Movement.
There was no question: this was an opportunity for Obama to advance the Iran issue, but if he supported the protesters, he risked losing a major nuclear deal with the Iranian regime that was already in the works.
Harry began with Iran. Obama constructed a powerful message that pressured the regime but fell short of declaring the elections stolen.
“The world is watching and is inspired by their participation, regardless of what the outcome of the election was.”
The protesters awaited additional support from Obama, but it never materialized. In New York the next morning, I felt a momentary flash of satisfaction when I saw other news networks running our interview. The banner on CNN read, “The World is Watching.”
That satisfaction subsided as it became clear that the dramatic media moment would yield very little for the Iranian protesters. It also foreshadowed an Iranian nuclear deal which would imperil a vital relationship.
BIBI AND BARACK
Perhaps not so coincidentally, something else had shifted the Middle East dynamic that week.
Benjamin Netanyahu was not Obama’s pick as a Middle East dance partner, but Netanyahu emerged victorious from the 2009 election in a coalition with religious and right-wing parties.
Obama welcomed Netanyahu to the White House in May 2009. He told the new Israeli PM he needed to stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Netanyahu bristled at the notion.
Their relationship went from bad to much worse. What began as mild irritation between the two leaders developed into animosity by the time Obama signed the Iranian deal eight years later.
In 2012, as Obama approached a second term, his advisors had all but given up on Netanyahu’s participation in a peace process. “They were never sincere in their commitment to peace,” Ben Rhodes would tell The New Yorker.
“They used us as cover,” Rhodes complained. “They were running a play, killing time, waiting out the Administration.”
Obama claimed their squabbles were like those of a married couple, but Netanyahu felt Obama’s policies threatened Israel’s national security and harmed his political prospects.
In a heated exchange, Obama reportedly said, “Bibi, you have to understand something. I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.”
A COALITION OF THE DISLOYAL
White House officials suspected Netanyahu secretly supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. A departure from the traditional neutrality with which Jerusalem approached US elections.
Romney would go on to lose the Israeli Prime Minister knew this spelled danger for his policies.
At home, Netanyahu faced a criminal investigation into government corruption. Sensing the power shift around him, Bibi shopped around for a political lifeline and found a willing ally in Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Putin and Netanyahu had become closer soon after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, which Jerusalem refused to criticize, despite pressure from Washington.
Soon after, Netanyahu and Putin agreed to establish a direct encrypted hotline between the Russian president’s office and Netanyahu’s home. “The Russians want to speak to Israel without anyone eavesdropping — in particular the US,” Russia expert Alex Tentzer told the news site Y-net.
Netanyahu and Putin tested Obama’s willingness to intervene in Syria over chemical weapons. Obama was reluctant to sink the US into another war despite Syria’s crossing of the so-called red line. This, emboldened Netanyahu and Putin to step up Russia’s attack on anti-Assad forces in Syria.
Netanyahu found another willing accomplice in Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who felt Obama had abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during a time of need.
As the second half of Obama’s term neared, it became clear that Hillary Clinton was to be his heir apparent.
The prospect of four more years of Obama-like policies under Hillary Clinton was a political death knell for Netanyahu’s policies.
Putin shared Netanyahu’s trepidation over a Clinton presidency, and recognized an opportunity to press for an unlikely and unprecedented alliance of like-minded nations with a strong preference for a US presidential candidate in a US election.
Expressing an affinity with a candidate is one thing, but coordinating an influence campaign in coordination with the candidate’s staff was tantamount to an act of war, but that is exactly what Netanyahu did.
In 2015, Netanyahu dispatched George Nader, a Lebanese American businessman who had been a close advisor of Netanyahu since 1996, to meet with Arab leaders assembled on a yacht in the Red Sea.
The yacht summit included Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bahrain Crown Prince Salman, and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Nader, who is currently serving a ten-year sentence in the US for trafficking a teenager and possessing child porn, unveiled a controversial proposal to remake the middle East.
It’s unclear if Nader was speaking on behalf of the Israelis or Emiratis but the proposal bore the presumed approval of both leaders. The plan involved establishing a new middle east alliance that would replace the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League and support US policy in the Middle East that countered Turkey and Iran, according to two unnamed sources quoted in the Middle East Eye.
Such a radical plan would need a US president who wasn’t as attached to traditional American policies like democracy. This ruled out Obama and Clinton. The group agreed to support the election of a unique political animal — an anti-democratic American president Donald Trump.
THE OPERATION TO ELECT
Nader promised to lobby US leaders to support the new alliance, but he did much more than that when he later became a fixture on the Trump campaign.
By February 25, 2016, key players connected to the countries represented at the yacht summit began to maneuver around the Trump campaign. Paul Manafort (connected to Russia) wrote to Thomas Barrack (connected to Saudi Arabia) for help in getting hired by the Trump campaign on a volunteer basis.
But arguably the most significant contribution to the Trump campaign came from Israel’s Psy- Group. One of a handful of companies born out of Israel’s famed 8200 division of the Israeli Defense Force. Netanyahu’s former national security advisor served on the advisory board of the company.
What followed was a sequence of contacts and contracts between the Trump Campaign and Psy Group’s CEO Joel Zamel. By March, Manafort’s deputy Robert Gates had met and hired Zamel for an initial campaign.
Erik Prince met with Zamel about a mysterious project codenamed Black Jack or Jack Black, which both Zamel and Prince refused to explain to Senate Intelligence Committee staffers.
Prince and Zamel would meet again in August 2016, this time at Trump Tower with Donald Trump, Jr., Stephen Miller, and George Nader.
Zamel outlined a plan to use Psy-Group’s algorithms to bend American sentiment ahead of the elections. The Saudis, Nader said, would foot the bill.
All told, Israel’s Psy-Group worked on the Trump campaign for almost a full year in varying capacities. Most notably, Psy-Group helped run a surveillance campaign on delegates at the Republican National Convention.
Psy-Group also worked for Oleg Deripaska in 2015 and Dmitry Rybolovlev in 2016, both oligarchs are close to Putin.
Winning a US election was an expensive endeavor with strict laws forbidding foreign funding but the alliance figured out a way to fund Trump while evading detection by the Federal Election Committee (FEC).
Given Trump’s poor financial situation, the claim that his campaign was self-funded was hard to believe. Nevertheless, the campaign survived on a steady stream of micro-donations under the $200-per-donor limit the FEC allowed without tracking.
As much as $90 million flowed through the accounts of Trump’s digital chief, Brad Parscale, and into Facebook’s coffers for targeted social media advertising. Most of this money came from micro-donations
The origins of this micro donations—and an equally significant amount that funded Bernie Sanders campaign—had not been scrutinized until a February 2021 article by BBC reporter Paul Woods about a Los Angeles–based smart payment entrepreneur Andy Khawaja.
According to Khawaja, the Saudis and the Emiratis illegally paid tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to the Trump campaign in 2016, disguising the money by using stolen identities and ‘virtual credit cards’ or gift cards to process donations of under $200.
Nader and Khawaja were partners in another foreign funding scheme that led to Khawaja and Nader’s arrest in a $3.5 million scheme to illegally conceal donations to political campaigns. Although Khawaja’s claims were never proven, his cooperation with Nader on this scheme lends credence to his involvement in the overall scheme to support Trump’s electoral win.
Soon after the election, the incoming administration began to signal a new posture toward Russia, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps in an attempt to smoke out Netanyahu, the US supported an Egyptian UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
Netanyahu viewed the vote as a jab by Obama and sensed an opportunity to test the loyalty of his new friends in the incoming administration. Even though Obama was still in office, Trump and his transition team led by son-in-law Jared Kushner prioritized scuttling or delaying the vote.
Kushner acted on Netanyahu’s request and with Michael Flynn worked with their Russian allies to influence the vote. In the end, Obama abstained, and the vote failed.
The UN vote highlighted that for all the consternation about Putin’s ties to Trump, Bibi Netanyahu carried significant sway in the Trump White House, as evidenced by increasingly radical pro-Israeli policies, such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
We may never know the full extent of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s involvement in supporting Trump’s election campaign, but prima facie, the Trump administration was decidedly pro-Saudi Arabia and pro-Israel at the exclusion of former Palestinian partners and in opposition to fundamental human rights.
Netanyahu, like Putin and Mohamed bin Salman, got much of what he wanted during the Trump years.
Netanyahu’s involvement in electing Trump would eventually drive a wedge between America’s left-leaning Jewish population and Israel’s government. That rift grew even deeper with the election of Joe Biden. It soon became apparent to Israeli politicians that the US-Israel alliance would be at risk, if Netanyahu stayed in charge.
As Netanyahu successor Naftali Bennett was being sworn in, defense secretary Benny Gantz said of Netanyahu: “No political move justifies the conflict you create[d] with the US.”