At this point it looks as if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inflicted significant damage to the US-Israel relationship by getting Republicans in the US Congress to invite him to address a joint session of the two houses without letting President Barack Obama know in advance.
That is, put simply, not how these things are normally done and it produced a firestorm of negative reaction from the Obama administration, current and former US officials, and both the US and Israeli media. The most shocking reaction came from the Obama administration itself which announced that although Netanyahu is welcome to visit Washington, neither Obama, nor Vice President Joseph Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry would meet with him during this visit.
This is in contrast to the usual practice in which the prime minister is invited to the White House where he is met with pledges of undying US support.
Not a punishment
The administration said, for the record, that it was not punishing Netanyahu for cooking up his visit exclusively with Republicans in Congress, and not informing the White House. No, it said that the reason is that Israel is in the midst of elections and that it does not want to seem to be interfering in the process by hosting Netanyahu, the head of the Likud party and candidate for another term as prime minister.
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The White House allowed others to set forth the real reason for snubbing Netanyahu, which is that the purpose of his visit is to help Republicans obstruct Obama’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme.
In the words of a New York Times editorial:
“Lawmakers have every right to disagree with presidents; so do foreign leaders. But this event, to be staged in March a mile from the White House, is a hostile attempt to lobby Congress to enact more sanctions against Iran, a measure that Mr Obama has rightly threatened to veto.”
The crisis in US-Israel relations began following Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress in which he pledged to veto any effort by Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran while the US is negotiating to exchange the lifting of sanctions for strict restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme. Speaking about those negotiations, Obama told Congress:
“There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed… But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails… That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
Intensify the fight
Less than 24 hours after Tuesday’s speech, the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, pledged to intensify the fight for new sanctions: “[Obama’s] exact message to us was: ‘Hold your fire.’ He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran. Two words: ‘Hell no!’ We’re going to do no such thing.”
On the contrary, Boehner said he had invited Netanyahu to address Congress about “the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life”. Boehner would use Netanyahu to make the case for new sanctions.
It is extraordinary enough that Boehner was inviting a foreign leader to come to the United States Capitol to rally Congress against the President. But the reality is that Netanyahu is not just a foreign leader, he is the de facto head of the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington.
It is extraordinary enough that Boehner was inviting a foreign leader to come to the United States Capitol to rally Congress against the president. But the reality is that Netanyahu is not just a foreign leader, he is the de facto head of the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington.
The Israel lobby spends tens of millions of dollars every election year to reward candidates for office (including the presidency, of course) who support Israel’s positions and withholding funding to those who don’t.
Boehner knows that the presence of Netanyahu in the halls of Congress itself was a direct way of telling legislators that if they support Obama over Netanyahu, they will pay a price.
But then the White House flipped that message and let it be known that Netanyahu himself would be the one paying the price. That warning was succinctly enunciated by a “senior American official” quoted in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.
“We thought we’ve seen everything… But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”
This is incredibly strong language about Israel.
And it didn’t only come from the White House or allies of Obama either (Democratic leader of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senator Diane Feinstein and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all weighed in to support Obama’s position, not Netanyahu’s).
It also came from perhaps Obama’s most bitter antagonist, the right-wing Fox News television network, which almost never has anything good to say about Obama or anything negative to say about Netanyahu. One top Fox News anchor, Chris Wallace, said he was “shocked” by Netanyahu’s behaviour and called the idea of his addressing Congress about Iran “wicked”.
Another, Shepard Smith, said of the Netanyahu government: “It seems like they think we don’t pay attention and that we’re just a bunch of complete morons – the United States citizens – as if we wouldn’t pick up on what’s happening here.”
In short, the Netanyahu trip has blown up in his face. Never before has US opinion turned so harshly on the prime minister.
It remains to be seen if any of this will hurt him. Yes, Israel’s image in the US is taking a beating and so is the famed “special relationship” between the two countries. But Netanyahu’s main concern is getting re-elected in the March 17 election.
If the clash with the US helps him win re-election by turning out a huge nationalist vote that likes seeing the prime minister defying Washington, he will be very pleased that he initiated it. If, however, he loses because Israelis are worried about the consequences of angering Israel’s only powerful friend in the world, he will be furious at the stupidity of those who came up with the idea of going to war with Obama.
One thing is certain. For Netanyahu, the only gauge of success is whether an action helps or hurts his election chances.
He’ll let others worry about the effect on his country.
MJ Rosenberg has worked on Capitol Hill for various Democratic members of the House and Senate for 15 years. He was also a Clinton political appointee at USAID.