November 18, 2018

Boehner invitation to Bibi signals Congress, White House showdown

The invitation by Speaker of the House John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on the question of Iran is a crude interference in Israeli election politics. 

The speech, scheduled for early March, and a fortnight before the Israeli election, looks like payback for the efforts made by the Israeli prime minister in 2012 to all but endorse Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president in 2012, and to defeat President Barack Obama. The announcement of the invitation this week, which Boehner’s office reportedly confirmed that Netanyahu has accepted, takes place at a moment when the prime minister’s standing in the world community — and most especially in the United States — is one of the largest issues of the campaign. The last time the prime minister addressed a joint session of Congress, at the invitation of the speaker and then-majority leader of the House, Eric Cantor, it was also to set up a political forum from which Netanyahu could attack the U.S. president. Then, Netanyahu was hoping to bring pressure on Obama to bomb Iran, and Cantor was seeking to dislodge Jewish support from the Democratic Party. 

Their strategy did not work. 

The president resisted calls to bomb Iran. And the Cantor-Netanyahu strategy did not change the U.S. political equation: American Jews overwhelmingly supported Obama and not Romney despite the quasi- endorsement of the prime minister, despite the Republican candidate’s fundraising and friend-raising trip to Israel in the middle of the campaign, and despite repeated attacks on Obama by the Israeli prime minister, not only on the question of Iran, but also the American policy position — held by all post-1967 presidents — on an Israeli-Palestinian peace process of negotiating on the basis of the 1967 borders, a position Netanyahu attacked vigorously before acceding to quietly. 

The timetable of the Iranian threat set out by the prime minister in his 2011 address to Congress, his urgent pre-election request for a September 2012 meeting with Obama — five weeks before Obama faced the U.S. electorate — and Netanyahu’s 2013 United Nations speech seems to have come off more urgent than was necessary. His dire predictions have not come true — or perhaps, giving him the benefit of the doubt, not yet. Three years have passed since the joint session speech, 26 months since the election and 18 months since the U.N. speech, and Iran still does not have the bomb, while negotiations are proceeding, albeit at a snail’s pace.

The case for sanctions in the interim has only gotten weaker since it was last raised in Congress, not because Iran is suddenly behaving nicely, but rather because the ultimate sanction is the drop in the price of oil, which is crippling the Iranian economy. Russia and Venezuela are suffering, as well, so it is a three-fold victory. And one cannot imagine that this drop in the cost of oil has not occurred without the direct collaboration between the United States and Saudi Arabia. 

Sanctions are not a unilateral tactic. They require the cooperation of U.S. allies in order to be effective, and the United States is unlikely to receive their collaboration if it unilaterally changes the terms of the negotiations by imposing such sanctions. Without that cooperation, they will be ineffective.

One now knows that the prime minister’s appearance was a product of conversations with Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, a former — dare one wonder if also current — Republican operative, who has been formally reprimanded for violating the civil service rules and actively supporting the prime minister’s re-election campaign. Dermer met with Secretary of State John Kerry for two hours the day before the announcement of the speech and did not say a word. I leave it to my readers’ imagination to judge his credibility with the Obama administration and with Kerry.

One can all-too-easily imagine that this is the quid pro quo to Bibi for his role in the 2012 elections and a return favor to Bibi’s most significant supporter in the United States, Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolls both the prime minister of Israel and the Republican Party.

His speech will be followed by a triumphant appearance before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which once again put its bipartisan protestations at risk by becoming a pro-Republican lobby in the American elections and a pro-Likud lobby in Israel.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an important danger to Israel and to the West. Acting alone or through nonstate actors, it could cause grievous losses and increase dangers exponentially. And the mere possession of nuclear weapons threatens a further arms escalation in the entire Middle East, which is already a tinderbox, while, at least for the time being, drawing Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt into a strategic alliance with Israel.

It is unclear what impact this may have on the Israeli electorate two weeks before it votes. The central issue in the Israeli campaign is the prime minister. It is all about Bibi. Israelis have a sophisticated — and sometimes misguided — way of reading American politics. But the speaker has chosen sides in the Israeli election. He and the U.S. representatives who will jump to their feet may not understand that they will face opposition from U.S. supporters of the Israeli right, who see Netanyahu as too moderate, and those on the center and left, who see Netanyahu as a disaster.

Repeated standing ovations in the U.S. Congress for a candidate for the office of prime minister  — most especially as he attacks a sitting U.S. president — should not sit well with many Americans, even among the most ardent of Israeli supporters. And AIPAC supporters rising to their feet will be a wonderful recruiting tool for J Street membership.

 And Bibi seems to be campaigning everywhere — in Paris marches, in its Grand Synagogue and now on the grand stage of the House of Representatives, but not in the streets of his own country.

And the White House has announced that the president will not meet with the prime minister on this trip. Who can blame him? 

He did not need Bibi’s support — American-Jewish voters did not follow the prime minister’s strong signals — in the past, and he faces no more elections in his future. One could imagine that the next time Bibi needs the United States to veto a U.N. resolution or to block a move in the International Court of Justice, someone in the White House or the State Department will be tempted to say: “The speaker of the house’s phone number is
(202) 224-3121. 

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FOR THE RECORD 01/23/2015:

The timing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's appearance before a Joint Session of Congress was corrected is two places to reflect that it will be in early March, not in February.  

UPDATED: 1/29/2015