The Bilious Bond Between Bibi, Barack, and Boehner

January 22, 2015 § 30 Comments

Anyone reading this blog knows by now that it has been a wild and wacky 24 hours in the never-ending soap opera that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his involvement – whether direct or indirect – in American politics. The newest chapter was sparked by President Obama’s State of the Union vow to veto any new sanctions bill that Congress passes targeting Iran, and Speaker John Boehner’s response the next day of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress and speak about “the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran.” While Netanyahu is often himself accused of trying to intervene in American politics, this was a clear cut case of someone else using Netanyahu to intervene in American politics, as Boehner’s hope is that a speech to Congress by Netanyahu will rally the troops and establish enough political cover for wavering legislators to override any future veto by Obama. The White House was obviously incensed, and declared this to be a breach of protocol since Boehner had invited a foreign head of state to Washington without first checking with his own head of state. Things started to become a bit more sticky today when Nancy Pelosi confirmed that she had nothing to do with the invitation and thus it was not a bipartisan invite, and then the White House stated that Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama while in Washington because it is longstanding policy not to meet with visiting political candidates so soon before an election, and Netanyahu’s visit is going to be two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.

This last point is key, because contra Max Fisher, who primarily sees this whole thing as the latest Netanyahu intervention into U.S. politics, I don’t think that is what Netanyahu is actually up to here. When Boehner was the one who invited Netanyahu in a clear effort to bolster GOP thinking on Iran policy, it strikes me as strange to argue that this is somehow a Netanyahu initiative, and that this is really the GOP cheerleading an anti-Obama campaign on Netanyahu’s part rather than the GOP using Netanyahu for its own ends. No doubt Netanyahu is as eager for new sanctions on Iran as his Republican friends, but the main reason speaking before Congress at the beginning of March holds appeal for him is because it is a unique campaign rally opportunity. One of the largest criticisms the Bujie Herzog-Tzipi Livni Zionist Camp alliance has had of Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign affairs is that he has needlessly alienated the Obama administration, and in so doing damaged relations with the U.S. and Israel’s standing in the world. Given the paucity of serious security figures in the Labor-Hatnua list, not to mention the fact that Labor’s comparative advantage when it comes to Israeli voters is on social and economic issues, harping on the alleged damage that Netanyahu has caused to U.S.-Israel ties is going to be the left’s biggest security and defense campaign issue. This is even more salient in the aftermath of this summer’s fighting in Gaza and given the widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and the peace process across the political spectrum, removing Netanyahu’s foot dragging on two states as a potent campaign issue.

In such a political climate, Netanyahu would be hard pressed to come up with a better rejoinder to the left’s argument about deteriorating relations with the U.S. on his watch than being invited to speak before Congress for a third time (tying his hero, Winston Churchill) and being cheered and applauded by members of both parties as he touts the common U.S.-Israel fight against Islamic extremism. The timing here couldn’t be better for him in terms of the vote, and no doubt he will use the speech during the final two weeks of his campaign as proof that the relationship with the U.S. is still rock solid and that Herzog and Livni are off-base with their criticisms, never mind the fact that Congress does not the entire U.S. government make.

While the logic might seem sound to both Boehner and Netanyahu, there are some potentially serious pitfalls in the plan. Starting with the GOP, there is the risk that the charge Fisher raises – of it being unseemly to side with the leader of a foreign country over one’s own president – will stick, particularly given the contention that it is inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without first consulting with, or at least informing, the president in advance (as an aside, I get the head of state argument, although I don’t see why Congress needs to clear its speaking invitations with the president, no more than the White House needs congressional approval to hold a joint Rose Garden press conference or hold a state dinner – I’d be grateful if any readers with particular expertise in constitutional law could elucidate whether there is a separation of powers problem here or not). More importantly for Boehner’s purposes, the Netanyahu invite could potentially backfire from a tactical perspective if there is a backlash against invoking the strength of the pro-Israel lobby to torpedo a president’s policy priority. This is precisely what happened in the 1981 fight during the Reagan administration over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, where the role of pro-Israel lobbying became a hot button topic. After public opinion had initially been opposed to the arms sale, with 73% opposed, Israel’s strident lobbying became an issue and public opinion shifted as a result, with 53% expressing that “once the President had decided to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia, it was important that Congress not embarrass him with the rest of the world,” and 52% agreeing that “the Israeli lobby in Washington had to be taken on and defeated so it’s a good thing the U.S. Senate upheld the plane sale to Saudi Arabia.” By explicitly tying Israel to new sanctions, Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Israel’s general popularity with voters and Netanyahu’s popularity among GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, but doing it so nakedly and overtly can have some unintended consequences.

Moving to Netanyahu, I’m not sure this is a winning maneuver for him, and I think he is actually taking a substantial risk. He is already being criticized at home for trying to subvert election laws through this speech to Congress, and in fact there has already been a petition filed to judicially block the speech from being aired on Israeli television. Furthermore, he is opening himself up to a mountain of opprobrium for further damaging relations with the Obama administration – and yes, the refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he is here may be justified given the election timing, but it is also an unambiguous slap down from a furious White House – and Democrats in general. Don’t forget that Pelosi has already hung him out to dry, and other Democrats will follow suit as they do not appreciate Netanyahu’s blatant coordination with the Republicans, irrespective of how they feel about Israel or further sanctions on Iran. If Herzog, Livni, Lapid, Kahlon, and the rest of the cast of characters looking to take down Bibi are smart about it, they will also seize on the fact that Netanyahu is being used as a political football here and either not aware enough to realize that it is going on, or worse, willingly allowing it happen. It does not speak well to Netanyahu’s instincts or leadership to be manipulated by Congressional Republicans for their own purposes and possibly damaging himself in the process.

Finally, in accepting such a charged invitation to speak, Netanyahu is keeping to a pattern of putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests with regard to the U.S., and that is where the real danger comes from. It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics. I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems. I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.

Hagel And The Israel Lobby

December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments

I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.

I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.

The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding,  and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.

Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.

None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least –  is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.

Guest Post: Which Side Is It That Is Actually Politicizing Israel?

June 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Following my post last week about the GOP turning Israel into a partisan issue, my friend Gabe Scheinmann emailed me to register his disagreement with what I had written. Gabe and I met when we were at Harvard and we both ended up as PhD students in the Government Department at Georgetown, and he is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Gabe is a rising star in conservative foreign policy circles, and I always take his unfailingly intelligent and informed views on security policy very seriously. Gabe has a different take on who is responsible for politicizing Israel as an issue in U.S. elections, and I asked if he would be willing to write a guest post laying out his rebuttal to my argument and he graciously agreed. Here is Gabe on the differences between the Republicans and Democrats on Israel and which side is more responsible for playing politics.

Making “Israel” into a partisan issue football is bad for Israel and bad for America. A true alliance does not bloom and wither based on the party in power, but instead represents long-term interests. By politicizing such an alliance, both political parties, and both countries for that matter, are jeopardizing the crucial trust and commitments needed for a fruitful relationship. Moreover, the current parties’ dispositions on Israel have not always been the same. Prior to the Nixon Administration, it was the Democratic Party that was a great friend of Israel, from immediate political recognition from Truman to the beginning of a military relationship under JFK. In contrast, the greatest crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations to this day occurred during a Republican Administration, when an irate Eisenhower browbeat Israel over its invasion of the Sinai and Suez Canal in 1956. Three decades from now, the parties’ identities may yet again change and it would be a disservice to the U.S, Israel, and the alliance if the parties were to develop diametrically opposed views on the subject.

That said, I think the real culprit is that for the first time in a long time, real differences have emerged between the two parties regarding their policies towards Israel. The Democratic Party’s lurch leftwards on foreign policy—partly a result of Vietnam, partly due to demographics—has also shaken its once solid support for Israel. The Democratic Congressional leadership remains very pro-Israel, way more so than the current president. But if you look at poll after poll of Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, what you find on Israel is very troubling. Whether it’s the J Street crowd (whose leadership is way more right-wing than its supporters, and that’s saying something), or the African-American community, or the environmentalist community, or the gay community, you’ll find some terrible sentiments on Israel. The ritual condemnation of Israel by supposed “human rights” organizations, all left-leaning, are manifestations of this. And while the Democratic leadership is indeed pro-Israel, the ranks of the Democratic party are not. The “Gaza-54” letter, asking Obama to pressure Israel to ease the Gaza blockade in 2010, was signed exclusively by 54 Democratic Congressmen, Rep Jim Moran (D-VA) blamed the Iraq War on AIPAC—earning the rebuke of Rep. Steny Hoyer—and, most recently, the New York Democratic Party establishment has come out against Charles Barron, the former Black Panther running for Congress, for his anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions, even though he has been endorsed by the retiring Congressman whose seat he’s running for.

Moreover, President Obama himself has politicized Israel policy to a degree unseen in decades. The Obama Campaign put out a glossy, epic-music-leitmotif video on its “exemplary” record on Israel, the White House (note: not the campaign) has a webpage exclusively devoted to the president’s Israel record, longer than the entirety of its foreign policy page, and the president himself declared that he “has done more in terms of security for the state of Israel than any previous administration” and knows more about Judaism than any other American president. The list goes on. Obama has spoken at AIPAC two years in row, a first for a president. The recent spate of national security leaks—authorized or not—have served to make the president look tougher to his electorate, while compromising real national security, such as the disclosure of the joint U.S.-Israeli cyberwarfare campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, which has a direct quote from VP Biden blaming Israel.  In addition, Biden has recently reemphasized the president’s campaign speech of last October, also expounding that “I believe that no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s physical security than Barack Obama”, even managing a small dig at the Bush Administration for supposedly not putting enough pressure on Iran.

Moreover, the President’s Israel policy seems dictated not by U.S. national security, but by his own reelection campaign, as his policies on the peace process and Iran have morphed as the November approaches.

Take the Peres ceremony. To be clear, if the GOP leadership was indeed invited, they should have gone. (However, Kampeas’ blog postings on the subject are far from definitive as to who was actually invited and who was out of town, so I’m not sure there’s solid evidence that the GOP absence was out of spite for Obama’s Israel record.) Notice the glowing and unprecedented reception the White House gave Peres compared to its shabby treatment of Netanyahu, Israel’s actual leader. Notice Obama quoting extensively from Peres’ 1993 Nobel peace prize speech, or the very act of giving Peres the medal, or more importantly, singling him out for a separate ceremony than the rest of the recipients the previous week. For example, when Obama gave Bush 41 the same medal two years ago, not only was it not a black tie event, nor at night, nor a reception, but he was one of fifteen recipients! This was an entire political operation by the president, from the decision to award the medal, to the manner in which it was presented, to the themes hit upon. (Notice how Peres brought up Iran, while Obama didn’t.) Obama’s message to Bibi was “See how I’ll treat you if you believe in what I believe”. It was a no-so-subtle dig.

To conclude, I believe that the core of the Democratic party has moved far leftward on foreign policy and, as a result, it is losing its reliable pro-Israel bent. This has begun to trickle up the ranks of its leadership, but for the moment its Congressional leadership is still solidly pro-Israel, more so than the president himself. So, what should the GOP or, for that matter, pro-Israel Democrats do? In order to keep Israel bipartisan, should they compromise? How should the Republican Party respond when the White House attempts to impose a settlement freeze on Israel, or equates the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering, or denies the existence of Bush era assurances to Israel, or attempts to refund UNESCO in contravention of U.S. law, or opposes the counting of Palestinian “refugees”?

In the past 5 years, substantive differences have emerged between the two parties on Israel, largely a result of a shift in the Democratic party. The emergence of groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel is a consequence, not a cause, of this shift and is merely trying to highlight these differences while ultimately letting voters decide. If the differences between the two parties, or Obama and Romney, were invented, then that would be a different story. However, they are not and therefore ought to be debated.

Turning Israel Into A Partisan Issue Does Israel No Favors

June 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

It is no secret that in the last few years the GOP has been trying to claim the pro-Israel mantle exclusively for itself. This has manifested itself in a number of ways, ranging from the creation of groups whose sole purpose appears to be bashing President Obama over the head on Israel to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promising Bibi Netanyahu during a one-on-one meeting that the House Republican majority would “serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington” and that “the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States,” with the unspoken implication being that the Democrats do not. Mitt Romney has accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus” and prominent conservative pundits have repeatedly taken Obama to task for alleged mistreatment of Netanyahu. The upshot of all this is a concerted message emanating from the GOP that only the Republicans can be trusted to safeguard Israel’s interests and that the Democrats, and Obama in particular, cannot.

The culmination of this strategy came on Wednesday, when Israeli President Shimon Peres was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a curious move from an American president who allegedly has no fond feelings for Israel. Many luminaries were in attendance, including Madeleine Albright, Elie Wiesel, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Notice anything strange about this list? Ron Kampeas did, which is that it includes only one Republican and nobody from the Republican congressional leadership. It is not because the Republicans weren’t welcome, as Kampeas confirmed from all sides that the leadership delegations from both parties were invited to Peres’s ceremony, but because they chose not to attend. Process that for a second – the president of Israel, who also happens to be one of the country’s founding fathers and a true Israeli legend and statesman in every sense, was honored by the president and only one (involuntarily) retiring Republican senator accepted the White House’s invitation to come. Eric Cantor, who is the highest ranking Jewish member of Congress in the history of the country and who cannot abide what he views as the White House’s various insults and backstabbing of Netanyahu and Israel, apparently thinks that coming to the equivalent of a state dinner for the Israeli president is not an important enough use of his time. Just imagine the torrent of criticism and vitriol that would be raining down on Obama and the Democrats right now if the situation were reversed. I dare say someone would be forming another Emergency Committee.

It seems pretty clear to me that the reason none of the Republican leadership was present on Wednesday is because they do not want to grant Obama a “victory” on Israel or lend credence to the notion that perhaps he is not as anti-Israel as Republicans have repeatedly insisted. It is a shame that one party is desperately trying to turn Israel into a partisan issue that can be used to its own political advantage, but more importantly it is a very dangerous development for Israel’s long term strength and support in the U.S. For decades, Israel has enjoyed nearly universal bipartisan support within American politics, and Republican efforts to paint Democrats as anti-Israel run the risk of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy and making Israel a political football no different than taxes, abortion, or government spending. I fail to see how making Israel a partisan issue benefits Israel at all rather than solely benefitting the Republican Party, which is misguided behavior coming from a party that professes to be looking out for Israel’s interests. The Republicans are so intent on being perceived as more pro-Israel than the other side that they are actually hurting Israel in the process. The GOP needs to take a step back for a moment and recognize that it is doing Israel no favors by constantly – and ludicrously – insisting that the Democrats can’t be trusted when it comes to Israel’s security, and stop using Israel to score political points. Whether the GOP spurning of the Peres medal ceremony was a dig at Obama or a nod of support to Bibi in the Netanyahu-Peres divide, it was an insulting and outrageous misstep. If you claim to be Israel’s best friend, then you damn well better show up when its president receives the highest honor that the White House can give.

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