The invitation Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner extended Wednesday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a special joint session of Congress has understandably kicked up a dust storm.
How dare the Republicans meddle in an Israeli election campaign, some argue. How dare Netanyahu meddle in the domestic US debate over Iran sanctions, others counter.
And still others ask how dare Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, that uppity former chief adviser to Netanyahu – he, the outsider with the American accent and kippa on his head who holds neo-Conservative opinion – dare wangle an invitation for the prime minister to speak from perhaps the most prestigious podium in the world about an issue of humongous import to Israel: Iran’s nuclear program. And just a few weeks before the elections, yet.
Amid all the noise accompanying this invitation, Labor MK Nahman Shai took to the radio waves Thursday saying that the fact that Netanyahu will be speaking to the joint session of Congress just demonstrates how badly he has messed up relations with the US.
Huh? Shai then explained that this will only further aggravate the White House because it was done without its prior knowledge, and just shows how bad things now are with Obama and with America.
And there it was again, that automatic conflation of a troubled relationship with the administration becoming a troubled relationship with America.
Does Netanyahu have a troubled relationship with Obama? Certainly, they have vastly different ideas about how to deal with both the Palestinians and Iran.
But a troubled relationship with America? Hello! Congress – a joint session of Congress – is also part of America.
Listening to the media punditry in Israel discuss the issue Thursday morning, one could walk away thinking it some kind of sin that Netanyahu likes Republicans, and that the Republicans like him back.
You know what? Republicans are people, too, and make up not a small part of America as well (along with a majority of the House and Senate). America is not only The New York Times editorial board, or Jeffrey Goldberg, or Martin Indyk, or New York City and San Francisco.
It’s not forbidden for the Israeli prime minister to have a strong relationship with Republicans, or for Dermer to use that relationship, if the reports are indeed true, to get his boss to address an issue of cardinal importance to Israel at a venue where the world will not only hear Netanyahu’s words, but also see Congress’s support. That is an important message to send to the country’s adversaries at a time when Israel is perceived as horribly isolated.
What is forbidden is for Israel to become a partisan wedge issue in Washington. And here is where things begin to get a little dicey.
The reflexive reaction of many in Israel to the Boehner invitation to Netanyahu is that the manipulative, smarmy, fast-talking Bibi is wrapping everyone – including the esteemed American Congress – around his finger to promote his campaign.
Speaking at a campaign rally in February in Ramle is not big enough, according to this argument, the greedy Netanyahu wants the US Congress as his backdrop.
In this construct Netanyahu is the Grand Puppeteer just pulling all the strings whenever and wherever he wants, controlling everything, from finagling himself into the front line of a march against terrorism (where, by God, the prime minister of Israel should by all rights be), to speaking to Congress.
But from an American perspective it looks a bit different.
From a US perspective it is the Republican House Leadership using Netanyahu as a club to bash Obama.
The Republicans are upset at the way Obama disregarded them – even after their victory in the mid-term elections – regarding immigration reform and reestablishing ties with Cuba. And they are unhappy about how he is not taking their positions into account on talks with Iran.
And, by the way, it is not only Republicans. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez is a Democrat, and he said this about the administration’s pushback against more Iran sanctions at a Senate hearing this week: “You know, I have to be honest with you, the more I hear from the administration in its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.”
Obama made clear at his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that he would veto a bill calling for more Iran sanctions.
The next day Boehner invited Netanyahu, saying – essentially – don’t ignore us, we can fight back, too.
But here Netanyahu must tread very lightly. One of Israel’s most important assets is that it truly is a bipartisan issue. Congress can kill each other over a myriad of issues, but still always agree on one thing: supporting Israel. That is a valuable asset that must not be squandered.
Netanyahu understands this, which is why on Thursday he asked Boehner to move his speech back to March 3 from the original February 11 date, to coincide with his appearance at the annual AIPAC convention.
This may be his semi-elegant way of getting get out of a difficult situation.
The optics of speaking to the Congress as part of a trip to AIPAC, something he did when he last addressed Congress in 2011, are better than if he would make a special trip just to address Congress. It will look a lot less like he is being used to bash the president, something Israel has no interest in doing, even as it enjoys the backing of an extremely friendly Congress.