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.