When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boards his plane on Sunday and heads to Washington to address a joint session of Congress for a third time, he could be forgiven for turning to Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who will be flying with him, and whispering, “Well this sure didn’t go as planned.”
No, it didn’t.
It was never really clear what Netanyahu’s plan was in accepting an invitation to address Congress that House Speaker John Boehner – embroiled in a nasty partisan spat with President Barack Obama – issued the day after the US president addressed the nation and said he would veto a bill for additional Iran sanctions.
The immediate reflex in much of the media after news of the congressional invite broke on January 21 was that this was another example of that wily Netanyahu manipulating Congress for his election purposes. He wanted nothing less – the initial conventional wisdom held – than the august halls of the US House of Representatives as his campaign prop.
But then, when the dust settled, it increasingly appeared that it was not Netanyahu who was using Boehner for his partisan election purposes, but rather Boehner using Netanyahu as a battering ram against Obama.
In other words, Netanyahu was being played.
But Netanyahu is no one’s sucker.
So the question must be asked how he allowed himself to get into a situation like this in the first place, where his very presence is forcing Democrats to chose between him and their president? How did he allow himself to be used as a political football? To understand that, it is instructive to go back nine years to a speech Netanyahu gave to the United Jewish Federations General Assembly in Los Angeles when he was head of the opposition.
“It’s 1938,” he asserted. “Iran is Germany, and it is racing to acquire nuclear weapons.”
And that, for Netanyahu, is the whole story in a nutshell. Nine years later, it is still 1938, the Iranians are still racing to acquire nuclear weapons, and the world is about to let them do it.
That is the prime minister’s perception of reality. And if, indeed, it is 1938, and Iran is Nazi Germany racing to develop the means to destroy the state of the Jews, then everything is permissible to stop that march – including poking one’s fingers into the eyes of the US president.
When Netanyahu’s office first announced the invitation from Boehner, an invitation that said it was extended “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate,” the office underlined that only one other leader – Winston Churchill – had ever addressed Congress three times.
Ironically, when Churchill went to address Congress for the last time in 1952, ties between London and Washington were also strained, and one of the reasons was Iran.
Iran had just nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil company, as Politico pointed out last month in a piece on the anniversary of that speech, and the British wanted it to be coerced into paying full compensation. Washington, however, was worried about how too much pressure on Iran would impact the Cold War.
Despite differences of opinion in policy toward the Middle East, at the end of Churchill’s visit, which included meetings with president Harry Truman, a statement was issued that – according to the BBC – spoke of a “complete identity of aims” in the Middle East.
Netanyahu can now only dream of a meeting with Obama, let alone such a statement.
Rather than trying to paper over the very real differences that exist between Israel and the US regarding Iran, the administration is going all out to amplify them.
If previous administrations thought it wise to minimize in public any daylight between Israel and the US, the comments emanating from the very top of the administration in recent days shows that their theme song is “Let the Sunshine In.”
Netanyahu, by accepting the invitation the way he did, opened the door, but the result of all that daylight flooding in is not beneficial to the health of either party.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice said this week that Netanyahu’s acceptance of the invitation to address Congress was “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the two countries.
Maybe, but her comments, and those by Secretary of State John Kerry, are only making matters worse.
At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Kerry reached back to 2002 and slammed Netanyahu for, as a private citizen at the time, supporting the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
“The prime minister was profoundly forward-leaning and outspoken about the importance of invading Iraq under [president] George W. Bush,” Kerry said. “We all know what happened with that decision.”
This was Kerry’s way of impugning Netanyahu’s credibility on Iran.
Netanyahu did indeed give testimony to Congress in support of invading Iraq, and wrote editorials in US newspapers along the same lines. But Kerry did even more than that, he voted in the Senate for a resolution to authorize use of force against Iraq.
The ham-handed manner in which Netanyahu handled the Boehner invitation, however, has given the administration a perfect opening for these types of attacks, and their purposes seems two-fold.
Perhaps concerned about the impact of Netanyahu’s words to Congress, Kerry seems to be preempting by calling into question the “expert witness.”
But there is something more at work here as well, and it has to do with more than mere pique at being slighted or a breach of protocol.
It is no secret to anyone whom the White House would like to see win the upcoming election, and the speech saga has allowed the administration to enter the fray and let the Israeli public know on the record – and not through salty insults made by anonymous senior officials – the disdain with which they hold its leader.
The White House could have found a way over the last few weeks to extend a ladder to Netanyahu, allowing him to climb down the tree he so clumsily and ill-advisedly ascended. But the administration didn’t extend that ladder, because the White House wants the prime minister to fall off that tree – a tree Netanyahu and Dermer can now blame themselves for scrambling up in the first place.