Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome. .
(photo credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE)
Israel has traditionally been a non-partisan issue for Americans.
While polls regularly show that those who identify themselves as Republican tend to be supportive of the Jewish state no matter the issue, Democrats – which is what the majority of American Jews still call themselves – are also predominantly pro-Israel, albeit in a more nuanced fashion.
As Herb Keinon wrote in Friday’s Jerusalem Post
, it’s not forbidden for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had a rocky history with US President Barack Obama, to have a strong relationship with Republicans. What is forbidden, however, is for Israel to become a partisan wedge issue in Washington. And Netanyahu’s March 3 speech before a joint session of Congress is indeed threatening to create a crack in the wall-to-wall support that Israel currently enjoys in Congress and among the American people.
The US has entered one of its most polarized periods in modern history. The resounding victory by the Republicans in the midterm elections has created a legislative gridlock over issues from trade and taxes to immigration.
And of course, foreign policy plays a key role in the domestic polarization of the US, whether it’s the Obama administration’s support for negotiations with Iran or its recent resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Enter Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu, an act seen by some Democrats as a blatant political ploy against Obama, coming just after the president promised in his State of the Union address to veto any Iran sanctions bill. Israel’s prime minister is clearly not a fan of Obama’s engagement with Tehran, and his address to Congress, two weeks ahead of the general election back home, is likely to boost Republican (and some Democratic) efforts to pressure Obama to accept the threat of sanctions against a stubborn Iran.
Boehner’s invitation was an offer that, as they say, Netanyahu couldn’t refuse.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu laid out his reasoning for accepting the invite, saying that “as prime minister of Israel, I am obligated to make every effort in order to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons that would be aimed at the State of Israel. This effort is worldwide and I will go anywhere I am invited in order to enunciate the State of Israel’s position and in order to defend its future and its existence.”
However, with Right-Left polarization at a peak level in the US, Netanyahu may be misjudging the effect that his speech will have – in essence opposing the policy of Israel’s strongest ally in the world.
Netanyahu will walk away with a “tough talk” speech that will play to his constituency back in Israel. And the GOP will be able to boast at hosting a foreign leader who publicly states that the president’s policies are flawed. But what will those victories cost? Israel is likely to become that divisive partisan wedge issue in Washington. The cracks are already appearing, with even staunch Israel advocates speaking out against Boehner’s ploy.
Discussing how the planned speech was apparently arranged without the White House’s knowledge, FOX anchor Shepherd Smith said, “It seems like [Netanyahu’s government] think[s] 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.”
Netanyahu has every right to address the Congress on the dangers of a nuclear Iran and the folly of holding off on restoring sanctions. But, as we’ve learned time and time again in diplomacy, there’s a difference between being right and smart.
Netanyahu’s speech will not change Obama’s mind about vetoing the bipartisan sanctions bill on Iran. It will only play into the hands of the Republican leaders of Congress, who are intent on making Obama look bad no matter what the cost.
It is also liable to alienate a sizable section of the US electorate, including many American Jews, who will see his appearance as a slap in their president’s face. A speech by an Israeli prime minister before Congress should be a welcome, uniting event. In this case, it won’t be.
Netanyahu should have had the foresight to realize that the proposed speech would be better off made at the AIPAC conference, which he is also to address during his visit. He would have done better not to become involved in a Democrat- Republican spat that he has no place in, and that can only harm ties between the US and Israel.