In 1976, the lives of Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu intersected in Boston. That brief shared experience decades ago led to a warm friendship that could affect U.S. foreign policy.
The two men had woefully little in common: one was a wealthy Mormon from Michigan, the other a middle-class Jew from Israel.
But in 1976, the lives of Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu intersected, briefly but indelibly, in the 16th-floor offices of the Boston Consulting Group, or BCG, where both had been recruited as corporate advisers. At a formative time in their careers, they sized each other up during the firm’s weekly brainstorming sessions, absorbing the same analytical view of the world.
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That shared experience decades ago led to a warm friendship, little known to outsiders, that could affect U.S. foreign policy: Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, is making the case for military action against Iran; and Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, is attacking the Obama administration for not supporting Netanyahu more robustly.
The relationship between Netanyahu and Romney — nurtured over meals in Boston, New York and Jerusalem; strengthened by a network of mutual friends; and heightened by their conservative ideologies — has resulted in an unusually frank exchange of advice and insights on topics such as politics, economics and the Middle East.
When Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, Netanyahu offered him pointers on how to shrink the size of government. When Netanyahu wanted to encourage pension funds to divest from businesses tied to Iran, Romney counseled him on which U.S. officials to meet with. And when Romney first ran for president, Netanyahu presciently asked him whether he thought Newt Gingrich would jump into the race.
A few weeks ago, on Super Tuesday, Netanyahu delivered a briefing by telephone to Romney about the situation in Iran.
“We can almost speak in shorthand,” Romney said in an interview. “We share a common experience and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar.”
Netanyahu attributed their “easy communication” to what he called “BCG’s intellectually rigorous boot camp.”
“So despite our very different backgrounds,” Netanyahu said through an aide, “my sense is that we employ similar methods in analyzing problems and coming up with solutions for them.”
The ties between Romney and Netanyahu stand out because there is little precedent for two politicians of their stature to have such a history together that predates their entry into government. And that history could influence decision-making at a time the United States may face crucial questions about whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or support Israel in such an action.
Romney has suggested he would not make any significant policy decisions about Israel without consulting Netanyahu, a level of deference that could raise eyebrows given Netanyahu’s polarizing reputation, even as it appeals to the neoconservatives and evangelical Christians who are fiercely protective of Israel.
In a telling exchange during a Republican debate in December, Romney criticized Gingrich for making a disparaging remark about Palestinians: “Before I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend, Bibi Netanyahu, and say: ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’ “
Martin Indyk, a U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration, said that whether intentional or not, Romney’s statement implied he would “subcontract Middle East policy to Israel.”
“That, of course, would be inappropriate,” he added.
Netanyahu insists he is neutral in the presidential election, but he has at best a fraught relationship with President Obama. For years, the prime minister has skillfully mobilized many Jewish groups and congressional Republicans to pressure the Obama administration into taking a more confrontational approach against Iran.
“To the extent that their personal relationship would give Netanyahu entree to the Romney White House in a way that he doesn’t now have to the Obama White House,” Indyk said, “the prime minister would certainly consider that to be a significant advantage.”
It was a quirk of history the two men met at all. In the 1970s, both attended business school in Boston: Harvard for Romney, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Netanyahu. After graduating near the top of their classes, they had their pick of jobs at the nation’s biggest and most prestigious consulting firms.
The Boston Consulting Group did not qualify as either. Its founder, Bruce Henderson, was considered brilliant but idiosyncratic; his unorthodox theories — about measuring a company’s success by its market share, and dividing businesses into categories such as “cash cows” and “dogs” — were regarded as outside the mainstream of corporate consulting.
As Romney recalled, the faculty and students at Harvard Business School routinely mocked the firm’s recruitment posters. “Boston Consulting was at the time a firm that seemed somewhat under siege,” he said.
But the company’s status as a pioneering upstart, nipping at the heels of bigger blue-chip firms such as McKinsey and Booz Allen, fostered a deep camaraderie among its young employees, who traveled around the country advising clients such as General Foods and the Mead Corp.
Both stood apart
Even in a firm of 100 MBAs, Romney and Netanyahu stood apart, as much for their biography as for their brainpower. Romney’s father, a former governor of Michigan, had sought the Republican presidential nomination a few years earlier, becoming a household name. Netanyahu had his own exotic résumé: He had just completed a tour of duty in an elite special-forces unit of the Israeli military.
“Both clearly had an aura,” said Alan Weyl, who worked at the firm from 1975 to 1989.
Although they never worked closely on a project together, Romney and Netanyahu, competitive by nature, left deep impressions on each other, which appear to have only grown.
Romney, never known for his lack of self-confidence, still recalls the envy he felt watching Netanyahu effortlessly hold court during the firm’s Monday morning meetings, when consultants presented their work and fielded questions from colleagues.
The sessions were renowned for their sometimes grueling interrogations.
“He was a strong personality with a distinct point of view,” Romney said. “I aspired to the same kind of perspective.”
Over dinner years later, aides said, Netanyahu would reveal the depth of his own scorekeeping, when he quipped, with mostly playful chagrin, that Romney had been “Henderson’s favorite.”
“His star,” the prime minister said of Romney’s time at Boston Consulting, “had already risen.”
Romney worked at the company from 1975 to 1977; Netanyahu was involved from 1976 to 1978.
But a month after Netanyahu arrived, he returned to Israel to start an anti-terrorism foundation in memory of his brother, an officer killed while leading the hostage rescue force at Entebbe, Uganda. An aide said he sporadically returned to the company over the rest of the two years.
Romney later decamped to Bain & Co. Netanyahu and Romney did, however, maintain a significant link: At Bain, Romney worked closely with Fleur Cates, Netanyahu’s second wife. (Cates and Netanyahu divorced in the mid-80s, but she remains in touch with Romney.)
The men reconnected shortly after 2003, when Romney became the governor of Massachusetts. Netanyahu visited him, eager to swap tales of government life.
Netanyahu, who had recently stepped down as Israel’s finance minister, regaled Romney with stories of how, in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he had challenged unionized workers over control of their pensions, reduced taxes and privatized formerly government-run industries, reducing the role of government in private enterprise.
He encouraged Romney to look for ways to do the same. As Romney recalled, Netanyahu told him of a favorite memory from basic training about a soldier trying to race his comrades with a fat man atop his shoulders. Naturally, he loses.
“Government,” Romney recalled him saying, “is the guy on your shoulders.”
As governor, Romney said, he frequently repeated the story to the heads of various agencies, reminding them their job as regulators was to “catch the bad guys, but also to encourage the good guys and to make business more successful in our state.”
A few years later, Romney had dinner with Netanyahu at a private home in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, in central Jerusalem, where the two spent hours discussing the U.S. and Israeli economies.
When Netanyahu told Romney of a personal campaign to persuade U.S. pension funds to divest from businesses tied to Iran, Romney offered up his Rolodex.
Before he left Israel, Romney set up several meetings with government officials in the United States for his former colleague. “I immediately saw the wisdom of his thinking,” Romney said.
Helping out on Iran
Back in Massachusetts, Romney sent letters to state lawmakers requesting the public pension funds they controlled sell off investments from corporations doing business with Iran.
Netanyahu has tried to avoid any hint of favoritism in the presidential election, but friends say he has paid especially close attention to Romney’s political fortunes this campaign season.
When it was Gingrich’s turn to leap to the top of the polls, Netanyahu was startled in January by an article exploring why Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino executive and supporter of Israel, was devoting millions of dollars to back Gingrich. It described Netanyahu and Adelson as close friends.
Netanyahu’s office quickly relayed a message to a senior Romney adviser that the prime minister had played no role in Adelson’s decision to bankroll a Romney rival.