Washington Watch: Speaking truth to power takes courage

It is time to move on, starting with a bipartisan approach to enforcement and deterrence.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington in March. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington in March.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Benjamin Netanyahu is returning to Washington on November 9 for the first time since his acrimonious campaign to defeat US President Barack Obama’s signal foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear agreement.
Unlike March, this time he has an invitation to the Oval Office.
Both men will be trying to bury the proverbial hatchet, at least publicly, but it will be mostly for show given the anger, frustration and distrust between them.
Netanyahu attacked the Iran agreement as increasing the danger to Israel by giving Tehran an open path to nuclear weapons, while Obama argued that the deal blocks the way and protects Israel. The disagreement was understandable; what wasn’t was the way Netanyahu chose to express his opposition.
He took the unprecedented step of aligning himself with the opposition party in Congress to mount an acrimonious and divisive lobbying campaign against a sitting president. Not only did Netanyahu lose that fight but he also did serious damage to US-Israel relations that won’t be healed by a polite little appearance before cameras from the Oval Office.
The damage is deep and lasting and goes well beyond the White House; in fact, the need for healing elsewhere may be even greater.
It is too late and useless to try to refight the battle over the agreement; it is time to move on, starting with a bipartisan approach to enforcement and deterrence.
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has suggested an additional step. “[I]t would be worth Netanyahu’s time” to make a “listening tour” on Capitol Hill, he said. It won’t be easy for the prime minister, who, as Makovsky noted, “is usually in a transmit mode,” but it is necessary.
Netanyahu is not a good listener by all accounts; if he wants to repair the damage on the Hill it’s time to change that. He can’t go into his usual defensive posture, complaining how no one else understands things the way he does and how he has only the purest of intentions while his critics are somewhere between unpatriotic and anti-Semitic.
It’s time to have an open mind and hear what people who disagree with him are thinking.
One stop he’d do well to skip would be with leaders of American Jewish organizations. They will only tell him what a great job he is doing and not what he needs to hear.
He should be smart enough to know these sycophants are doing Israel more harm than good because they are so out of touch with the grass roots they claim to represent.
The establishment leadership may have been loyally following Netanyahu in opposition to the Iran deal but it was in stark contrast to polls showing support for the deal by the Jewish rank and file.
There is a clear drift away from Israel among younger and more liberal Jews – the majority – that is encouraged by a feeling that Netanyahu is no more serious about making peace than his Palestinian counterpart.
Netanyahu had once – correctly – said Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a global problem, but he quickly forgot that and made it all about Israel. Republicans in Congress, who were prepared to oppose en masse anything Obama proposed, latched on as part of their fundraising appeal to show the GOP is more pro-Israel than the Democrats.
Netanyahu, with his long history of meddling in partisan US politics and viewing events in the frame of his upcoming election, agreed to a GOP invitation to address Congress to trash Obama’s Iran policy.
Netanyahu’s lobbying campaign not only failed but may have actually rescued the agreement by rallying Democrats and particularly Jewish lawmakers around the president to help him win approval in the face of the partisan campaign waged by the prime minister and his Republican allies.
Netanyahu’s listening tour must start with Democratic leaders, African-American lawmakers and the Jews.
The meetings must be small, private and separate. Democrats want to support Israel but resent the prime minister’s partisan meddling and working behind their president’s back to sabotage his most important foreign policy achievement.
African-American leaders see Netanyahu’s war on Obama, rightly or not, as dissing the nation’s first black president.
Most Jews are Democrats and liberals and support a two-state approach to peace with the Palestinians. They privately complain Netanyahu says he does, too, but they see no evidence, only his relentless efforts to blame the Palestinians for the lack of progress and Israel’s ongoing expansion of the West Bank.
I have my doubts that these politicians, who have been so vocal anonymously or in private about their displeasure with Netanyahu, will have the courage to ask the tough questions and to say what they think to his face.
One thing I learned on the Hill and as legislative director of AIPAC is that how rare such courage can be.
Often before leaving for Israel to meet with government leaders I would get instructions from our “courageous” board members about hard truths to share with our Israeli friends. I tried to follow those orders because I believed it important they know the emmes, the truth.
On those occasions when the big machers themselves were going to Jerusalem to see the prime minister they discussed what he needed to know and what they should tell him. In the boardroom in Washington they were tough, but once in any prime minister’s office they were sycophants, assuring him he was a great world leader doing a wonderful job, that there were no problems and they had everything under control.
Afterwards top aides to the minister of the moment would take me aside to complain about the mixed messages.
Members of Congress are no different. Very few are willing to be frank in their discussions with leaders of Israel or of American Jewish organizations. They don’t want their criticisms to get back to their constituents or their donors.
It’s not easy speaking truth to power. Listen to the Nixon tapes and how Henry Kissinger and the rest groveled and fed his bigotry, insecurities and paranoia.
Will members of Congress and American Jewish leaders have the courage to tell Prime Minister Netanyahu what they’re really thinking, or will they just tell him what they think he wants to hear? Will he be in a listening mode or his usual transmit mode? There’s a lot more riding on this than their egos.