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Rahm: Netanyahu bet and lost; Israeli ambassador said prime minister did not take sides

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WASHINGTON -- Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., denied Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favored Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama, with his comment coming after I asked him about Mayor Rahm Emanuel's criticism of Netanyahu on that very point at a forum here earlier this month.

Relations between Netanyahu and Obama have been strained, and Netanyahu was seen as preferring Romney and meddling in the U.S. presidential election where the Jewish vote was especially important in the battleground states of Ohio and Florida.

Did Netanyahu support Romney? "Categorically no," Oren said.

I questioned Oren about the November election, Netanyahu and Emanuel -- Obama's former chief of staff -- at a reporters lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Emanuel appeared Dec. 1 at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy's annual Saban Forum here, and though Emanuel's comments were off the record, he was outed by the Washington Post's David Ignatius and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Ignatius, at an on-the-record Saban Forum panel later that day -- videotaped and posted at the Brookings website -- asked Olmert about Emanuel's lunchtime remarks, which both men agreed were very "explicit."

Emanuel said, according to Ignatius, "that when Prime Minister Netanyahu came to the Oval Office, he did something that no visitor should ever do, and then he said that Prime Minister Netanyahu had bet on this election, this American election, and had lost."

Olmert, who may challenge Netanyahu in the upcoming Israeli election, also said Netanyahu intervened "into the political process of America."

The Dec. 3 front page of the Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot featured pictures of Netanyahu, Obama and Emanuel -- the son of an Israeli -- and was headlined "Netanyahu bet and lost."

More on that below.

Now let's hear from Oren, who, after I asked, presented a very different perspective on Netanyahu and the U.S. presidential contest.

"Prime Minister Netanyahu went to extraordinary lengths not to be dragged into the U.S. political elections," Oren said. "And here, both parties put out film clips on YouTube that attempted to harness Israel and Israeli leaders into the political situation here. We went to great lengths to keep out of it.

"One of the great challenges we faced was that everything in this country was seen through the prism of election, whereas everything in Israel was seen through the prism of an Iranian nuclear threat. So every time there was some statement here made about the nature of the Iranian nuclear threat, and the prime minister responded and expressed Israel's interest and Israel's perspective, it was immediately misinterpreted here as sort of an illicit attempt to interfere in American political politics, and it wasn't true, it wasn't true."

Oren -- who was present when Emanuel spoke -- said he would not comment about the mayor's remarks because that panel was off the record.

Emanuel's Oval Office reference was probably about a "lecture" on Israel's borders that Netanyahu gave Obama during a joint White House session in 2011.

Later on Tuesday, I talked to someone close to Emanuel about what he said at the forum who told me Emanuel was speaking for himself, not the Obama administration. He stressed that a putdown in the Oval Office -- no matter who is president -- impacts Israel's own security. Israeli prime ministers don't typically play in U.S. politics, and Emanuel hoped for "all his Israeli friends in the room, that their understanding of defense policy and national security capacity is better than their understanding of American politics."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on December 12, 2012 8:06 AM.

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