Washington watch: Bibi’s three amigos undercutting Kerry

Their message to Netanyahu is that they will run interference for him and block anything the administration wants. To Abbas, they’re saying, we’re Netanyahu’s boys, so you can fuggedaboutit.

Kerry Bibi 370 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Kerry Bibi 370
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
The longstanding Vandenberg principle that foreign policy stops at the water’s edge has been eroding in recent years but this week, it was washed out to sea by three US senators – who plunged into the middle of a diplomatic mission by their secretary of state to undermine his efforts to negotiate Israeli-Palestinian peace.
John Kerry was in Jerusalem on his 10th trip in less than a year, trying to keep alive the sputtering peace talks he initiated six months ago. He praised Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for their “important... courageous...difficult decisions” in pursuit of peace.
Netanyahu was in a bad mood, and used the welcoming ceremony to lash out at Abbas. Israelis have “growing doubt” about his commitment to peace, Netanyahu said, accusing the Palestinian leader of having “glorif[ied] the murderers of innocent women and men as heroes.” Abbas’s PA, he said, “continues its unabated incitement against the State of Israel.”
The private session with the secretary of state was even more strained. Netanyahu arrived for their meeting “angry, and made sure his guest knew it,” reported Barak Ravid in Ha’aretz. “[T]he atmosphere was ugly and tense,” and it took the prime minister more than an hour to calm down, he wrote.
Netanyahu next briefed the three visiting Republican senators – John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Barrasso of Wyoming – who emerged from their meeting in full Likud attack mode, sounding more like spokesmen for the Israeli prime minister than members of the US Congress.
They went after their former Senate colleague not only on the subject of peace talks, but also on Syria (they want direct military intervention), Iraq (they wish we were still there) and Iran (do whatever Netanyahu wants).
Gone was any semblance of observing the longstanding tradition of bipartisanship on foreign trips and keeping politics out of congressional missions overseas.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has serious, serious concerns about the plan that has been presented to him – whether it be the ability of Israel to defend its borders, the viability of a Palestinian state and their intentions and their actions toward the State of Israel, and particularly on the overall security – whether it’s boundaries, areas under Palestinian control,” said McCain.
Foreign policy professionals from Congress as well as former diplomats and others I spoke to all told me this was unprecedented and, said one, “sure as hell bad.”
Chris Nelson, a former congressional foreign affairs staffer and veteran analyst, called this “a truly stunning betrayal of principle, tradition and practice in legislative involvement in foreign policy.” The three senators were “deliberately undercutting” Kerry and “supporting hard-line Israeli elements long opposed to anything from the Obama administration.”
A former State Department official told me it was standard procedure to discourage congressional delegations from being in country at the same time as the secretary of state. There may be some overlap, as one arrives and the other leaves, but it is highly unusual for American lawmakers to show up during a diplomatic mission by the secretary of state and not only criticize American policy, but sound like the spokesmen for the foreign government.
The Vandenberg principle was first articulated by Michigan Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg at the start of the Cold War. He abandoned his longstanding isolationism to back president Harry Truman and the creation of NATO. It was essential, in his view, that America show strength and unity, and no politician should go abroad and undercut any president of any party. It was called a monument of bipartisanship, but that is something verboten in today’s congress.
The principle has been dying in recent years, but these three amigos trampled it to death.
McCain and his colleagues also echoed Netanyahu’s views by calling for tougher new Iran sanctions, in violation of last November’s Geneva agreement, which included a sixmonth freeze on such legislation to give the nuclear negotiations a chance to succeed.
The former Republican presidential nominee said Obama is not being tough enough on Iran. He may be right on both counts, but his time and venue make his motives suspect.
Graham sounded like the spokesman for the national camp and settler movement, which oppose any territorial concessions or Palestinian statehood. “Once you withdraw, the ability to go back is almost impossible,” he warned.
“I really do believe that the idea of withdrawing has to be considered in light of Gaza.”
They didn’t stop there. McCain also accused the Obama administration of not doing enough to curb the violence in Syria, which he said also endangers Israel. He and Graham have urged US military intervention in that war, something broadly opposed in Congress and among the American public. They also blamed the Obama administration for the “tragic” and “predictable” capture of Fallujah, Iraq, by al-Qaida forces. The pair opposed the US withdrawal from Iraq two years ago.
The peripatetic senators only make Kerry’s job more difficult and peace more elusive. Their message to Netanyahu is that they will run interference for him and block anything the administration wants. To Abbas, they’re saying, we’re Netanyahu’s boys, so you can fuggedaboutit.
Kerry is planning to return next week. Will Netanyahu’s boys be there, too?