Netanyahu should cancel his upcoming trip to Washington - opinion

Netanyahu should focus on the current turmoil in Israel before meddling with Washington's affairs and managing the US-Israel relationship.

 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a joint press conference, on January 30, 2023 (photo credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/POOL VIA REUTERS)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a joint press conference, on January 30, 2023

The United States and Israel just concluded their largest-ever joint military exercises, with Israeli jet fighters escorting American B52s, submarines of both nations far below the surface and a whole lot of hardware in between. Operation Juniper Oak 23 was a clear message to Iran of America’s commitment to go the distance to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

President Joe Biden insists he is deadly serious about keeping the military option on the table and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly said privately that he doesn’t believe him. Biden wants to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration when he was vice president.

Netanyahu's involvement

Netanyahu was a bitter opponent of that deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and went so far as to collude with Congressional Republicans behind Obama’s back to lead their campaign against the deal, including an unprecedented speech before Congress castigating the Obama administration.

Little wonder that the Israeli leader did much damage to his and Israel’s relations with Democrats and Jewish supporters of the JCPOA, and particularly president Barack Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden. Biden once told Netanyahu, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you.

Biden is not the only American leader who distrusts Netanyahu. That group includes presidents Bill Clinton, Obama, Donald Trump and several former secretaries of state. Most recently, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s top diplomat, wrote in his just-published memoir that Netanyahu lied about a discussion of a mutual defense treaty between Washington and Jerusalem

Then-US president Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, at the White House in May 2018. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)Then-US president Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, at the White House in May 2018. (credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Netanyahu also has a notorious record for meddling in partisan US politics, almost always on behalf of Republicans. He tends to have warmer relations with autocratic rulers than with the West’s democratic leaders.

Biden’s secretary of state, CIA chief and national security adviser have all been in Israel in recent days to emphasize America’s deep and enduring commitment to Israel’s security.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem this week assured Israelis the alliance remains ironclad. However, it is showing signs of rust that need attention. He spoke of the imminent threat to core democratic principles, the rule of law and equal justice. That reflected the president’s deep concern and that of many of Israel’s friends about Netanyahu’s plans to emasculate the Israeli judicial system, undermine the separation of powers and erode the nation’s democracy.

Netanyahu brushed him off with a version of “trust me,” and turned to Iran.

The prime minister is said to be planning a trip to Washington in the coming weeks. Lobbying against a revived JCPOA would be high on his agenda.

BIDEN SHOULD tell Netanyahu to stay home. He has all the assurances anyone could ever need from the high-level visitors and joint military operations to say nothing of more than $3.8 billion (NIS 13 b.) in annual aid provided by American taxpayers.

The man known as “Bibi’s brain,” Ron Dermer, flew to Washington as soon as he took office as minister for strategic affairs. He wanted to talk to old friends in Washington about Iran. That had to worry White House aides. They remember him as Netanyahu’s ambassador in 2015 who blindsided president Obama by arranging for House Republicans to invite Netanyahu to speak to Congress against the Iran nuclear agreement and lead the GOP lobbying campaign.

Despite Biden’s hopes to renew the agreement which Trump shredded, new Iranian demands make that highly unlikely. But that’s only one element of a tangle of potential problems between the two leaders. A new, partisan-charged visit by Netanyahu will likely make them worse.

 Leading friends of Israel in Congress are openly critical of where he and his extremist coalition are leading Israel. Many longtime supporters are speaking out, notably senior Jewish lawmakers like Reps. Jerry Nadler and Brad Sherman, as well as Senators Robert Menendez, Jacky Rosen and Lindsey Graham.

Republicans will exploit this criticism for partisan gain in their old wedge politics game of “we love Israel more.” Netanyahu and Dermer, who was a GOP operative before making aliyah, are old hands at that game and it is unhealthy for a bipartisan consensus for Israel. They’ve done much to erode support for Israel among Jews and Democrats, and AIPAC made matters worse with its endorsements and millions in contributions to dozens of election deniers and supporters of the Trump insurrection.

Netanyahu should also stay home so he can mind the shop as violence is spreading, the Palestinian Authority has halted security cooperation and a Third Intifada may be brewing. Seven Jews were murdered outside their eastern Jerusalem synagogue last Friday night on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Palestinians celebrated the deaths.

There is genuine concern that extremists in the government will try to exploit the tensions for their purposes. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Kahanist national security minister with a long history of racist incitement and his allies are calling for making gun licenses easier to get, revoking social security benefits for families of attackers, deportation, a death penalty for Arab terrorists but not Jewish terrorists, and the strengthening of settlements.

Another good reason for Netanyahu to stay home, where he is on trial on several corruption charges, is that he doesn’t know what his ultranationalist and ultra-religious partners might do while he’s away.

Operation Juniper Oak 23 was a dress rehearsal for a possible joint US-Israeli attack on a nuclear-armed Iran. It was also a demonstration that the strategic alliance remains solid, even as the political and diplomatic one is frayed, as are Israel’s relations with the Democrats and the Jewish community.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, a consultant, a lobbyist and a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.