US President Barack Obama delivers January 2014 State of the Union address.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse, Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Jerusalem) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hatched a plan for the prime minister to lobby the Congress in opposition to the Obama administration’s Iran policy.
That maneuver caused Netanyahu’s hopes of pressing for quick passage of tough new Iran sanctions legislation to backfire in his face. Because of his interference the Senate has put off voting on the bill until after the March 17 Israeli elections and has threatened to undermine Israel’s historic bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill.
Netanyahu wants to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat in the worst possible way, and that’s just how he’s going about the task. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing over how to deal with the issue, but the hyperpartisan path he has chosen does more damage to his cause than good.
There is no known precedent for a foreign leader working with the Congressional opposition behind a president’s back to come to Washington to lobby against an administration’s policies.
Meddling in American partisan politics is nothing new for Netanyahu. In 2012 he virtually endorsed Mitt Romney, appeared in one of his campaign ads and his supporters held a fundraiser for the GOP candidate.
The show was largely produced by Netanyahu’s closest advisor, a longtime Republican operative before making aliya, Ron Dermer, who was rewarded with the top diplomatic post Israel can offer, ambassador to Washington.
Dermer’s mission was to organize the opposition to Obama’s policies on Iran and peace with the Palestinians.
In that capacity he worked with Boehner to invite Netanyahu to address the Congress two weeks before Israeli elections. The scheme was kept secret from the administration until it was sealed.
The administration immediately condemned it as a breach of protocol and announced the president, vice president and secretary of state would not meet with Netanyahu (or any other foreign leader) so close to an election in his country. Obama accused Netanyahu of coming to Washington to “undermine diplomacy.”
Netanyahu’s supporters are accusing the administration of snubbing the prime minister, but it is actually the other way around. The Congressional appearance was arranged in secret and was intended to be a platform for pressing for new sanctions legislation that Obama has threatened to veto.
Netanyahu and Dermer were clearly putting the prime minister’s partisan interests ahead of Israel’s national interest. Even the reflexively pro-Netanyahu/ anti-Obama Fox News had harsh criticism for the gambit. Fox host Shepherd Smith said Netanyahu must think Americans are “just a bunch of complete morons” not to “pick up on what’s happening here.”
Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren, also a Netanyahu appointee and onetime confidante, called on the prime minister to show “responsibility and reasoned political behavior” and “cancel the speech” to avoid a “rift” with the administration.
Former secretary of state James A. Baker said the gambit shows Netanyahu’s failure to manage relations with Israel’s most important ally.
Netanyahu has been personally phoning Senate Democrats to deny he is trying to do an end run around the president and asking them to tone down their criticism, but they aren’t buying. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid told the prime minister that the incident – not his colleagues’ criticism – is “hurting Israel” and “hurting you” and causing Democratic senators, including the Jews, to back off support for quick passage of the sanctions bill being pushed by the prime minister and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He said the Boehner-Netanyahu scheme to make support for Israel a partisan wedge issue is undercutting support for Israel among Democrats.
Netanyahu had hoped to gin up support and get the bill passed before the Israeli election to demonstrate his clout in Washington, but his plan backfired and the legislation is being put off until after the March 24 deadline for an Iranian agreement and any new sanctions wouldn’t go into effect before July.
For Netanyahu it is about more than Iran. It’s about who’s in charge of US Middle East policy. Romney had promised to defer to Netanyahu but he lost the election; John McCain’s protégé, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), went to Jerusalem in December and pledged his loyalty to the Likud leader. He promised Netanyahu “the Congress will follow your lead” on Iran; last week he announced he’s “exploring” running for president.
Netanyahu may think that the Republican takeover of both chambers of Congress gives him a willing ally in going against the administration, but in reality he is doing considerable damage to relations with a president who will be in power another 23 months; if Netanyahu is reelected next month, he will have to find a way to clean up his act.
There is a way out. If Netanyahu wants to reverse the deterioration of his relations with the administration for the next two years – assuming he will still be in office – there are two steps he can take immediately to demonstrate he is serious.
The first is to cancel the speech or, at a minimum, postpone it until after the Israeli elections (he can say that the race is too close, this is a distraction, and he needs to stay home to campaign). The next step in damage control is to replace his meddlesome ambassador with someone less partisan and more professional. He needs a pro, not a hatchet man for the repair job.
There’s nothing wrong with picking political allies to be ambassador. David Ben-Gurion chose Abba Eban, Golda Meir sent Simcha Dinitz, Menachem Begin had Moshe Arens and Yitzhak Shamir and first-term Netanyahu appointed Zalman Shoval, all political appointees but also responsible, professional, non-partisan and effective.
What is needed in Washington, now more than ever, is an ambassador who will put his country’s national interest ahead of his patron’s partisan interests.