Washington watch: Boehner 2, Ayatollahs 2, Netanyahu 1, Israel 0

Way to go, Netanyahu.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window
If you’re keeping score on the prime minister’s ego trip to Washington this week, it reads Boehner 2, Ayatollahs 2, Netanyahu 1, Israel 0.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), with the help of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, concocted this pre-Purim megillah in which a transparent curtain of policy was drawn to conceal some knuckleheaded election politics.
Boehner was the big winner. He succeeded where other Republicans have failed for many years, driving a wedge between congressional Democrats and Israel on an issue that had long been a bipartisan consensus in American politics.
It was a twofer for Boehner. Making his announcement of the unprecedented and secret invitation the day after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, it was another expression of his unconcealed contempt for this president. As he poked Obama in one eye, his pal Netanyahu poked the other.
Lots of Republicans are also very happy because they think Netanyahu, the self-proclaimed leader of all the world’s Jews, is the Moses who will lead a Jewish exodus to the GOP. Of course it won’t happen, and for a plethora of reasons unrelated to Israel.
Boehner has got to be something of a hero in the Arab world. With Netanyahu’s help they’re turning Israel from a bipartisan consensus in Washington into a partisan wedge issue. No Arab or Iranian or anti-Semite has been able to do as much damage to US-Israel relations as these two.
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The trip has been a success for Netanyahu. So far. It has been packaged like a political campaign event, which is exactly what it was.
Just before flying to Washington on what he called an “historic” mission on behalf of the Jewish people, he went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem for a photo op. While there and later in Washington he declared his “respect” for President Obama. Amazingly, he wasn’t struck by lightning.
Netanyahu came here because he was well aware that any politician gets more attention back home when he speaks from a foreign capital. Look for Netanyahu to use pictures of his congressional appearance in his campaign commercials, just as in his previous election.
Speaking two weeks to the day before a very close election and facing a corruption investigation, Netanyahu wants to show Israeli voters that he is courageous enough to stand up to an unpopular American president if that’s what it takes to protect his nation from the twin threats of nuclear attack from Iran and Palestinian statehood.
He should get a quick bump in the polls, and possibly even win reelection, but his performance in recent weeks means his influence and credibility will be severely impaired in this administration, which, even he admitted in his Washington speech, has been the front line of defense diplomatically and militarily for Israel.
Picking this fight with Obama, and knowing that his speeches weren’t going to change a single vote in Congress on the Iran sanctions legislation he wants and the administration opposes (in fact, his deal with Boehner probably robbed them of a veto-proof majority they’d been expecting), Netanyahu may gain some personal political advantage but at the expense of Israel’s national interest. With his White House relationship so damaged by his own hand and that of his inept ambassador, an election win on March 17 may be a pyrrhic victory, at least for the remaining 22 months of this administration.
The broad bipartisan consensus of support for Israel in the Jewish community and Americans at large has been damaged by Netanyahu’s latest plunge into partisan politics and it may require a new Israeli leader to repair it.
Netanyahu’s declared goal in coming to Washington this week has been to block a nuclear agreement with Iran. He is lobbying Congress for enactment of harsh new sanctions that he contends will bring Iran to its knees and an agreement on his terms, something all the international powers negotiating with Tehran say is not only unrealistic but counterproductive.
A more likely outcome, if he succeeds in scuttling the talks, is that the coalition will start to crumble and some partners, starting with Russia and China, will begin to relax the sanctions that brought Tehran to the table. A lot of other countries will follow, hoping to do business with the oil-rich Persians.
If the sanctions regime collapses it will take down the key incentive for Iran to halt its nuclear program, and the Revolutionary Guard will build a monument in downtown Tehran to the man who made it possible: Benjamin Netanyahu.
The administration has said, “The alternative to not having a deal is losing inspections, and an Iran ever closer to having the fissile material to manufacture a weapon.”
Another alternative is the last one Netanyahu should want: a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Dov Zakheim, a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, wrote in Foreign Policy that Netanyahu’s Washington trip has done more damage to Israel’s interests than Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Netanyahu may already have damaged his cause beyond repair,” he wrote. “[W]hatever his personal feelings about President Obama, Netanyahu needs American support on a host of issues” far beyond Iranian nukes.
Netanyahu ignored the urging of nearly 200 former generals and commanders of all Israeli defense and intelligence agencies who warned failure to cancel the speech would severely damage the US-Israel alliance.
The prime minister has “subordinated Israel’s most crucial strategic interests to election considerations,” charged former Israeli deputy national security advisor Chuck Freilich.
A top goal of Netanyahu’s Washington campaign trip was to be the catalyst for a quick vote by a veto-proof majority in the Congress on a tough new sanctions bill that Obama opposed. It was the trophy Netanyahu wanted to showcase before the Israeli elections. But his and Boehner’s ham-handed performance offended even ardent Democratic supporters of the legislation, and they were able to force a delay in the vote until after the Israeli elections and the March 24 target date for an agreement with Iran.
Netanyahu must be a hero in Tehran, where a top advisor to President Hassan Rouhani said the Israeli leader’s Washington visit will “benefit Iran” because it will “further widen the existing gaps” between Israel and its supporters, reported The Times of Israel.
Way to go, Netanyahu.