Washington Watch: Why Netanyahu wants to get out of town

Netanyahu has ignored the advice from American Jewish leaders and Israelis across the political spectrum to cancel his trip to the US.

Netanyahu at cabinet meeting (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Netanyahu at cabinet meeting
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will probably be glad to get out of town after going through a bad week in Jerusalem that saw him hire a criminal defense attorney, have to return money from bottle deposits that his wife pocketed, get slapped down by Diaspora Jewry and have the US government say he can’t be trusted to keep a secret.
A State Comptroller report portrayed the prime minister and his wife enjoying a lavish lifestyle at taxpayer expense. The list ranges from Mrs. Netanyahu keeping deposit refunds on recycled soda bottles to sending employees out to do the Netanyahus’ personal shopping without reimbursing them, spending $2,000 a month of public funds to clean their private villa in Caesarea, billing taxpayers $68,000 over a two-year period for Mrs. Netanyahu’s makeup and hairstyling, paying $2,700 a year for ice cream (pistachio for him, French vanilla for her) and $127,000 to put a bedroom on a plane so they could rest on a five-hour flight to London.
The report reveals pettiness, hedonism, waste and financial mismanagement. Comptroller Joseph Haim Shapira has turned over his findings to the attorney general because he felt they raised “suspicion of a criminal act.” In a separate matter the national police chief has recommended the attorney general investigate allegations by the former manager of the prime minister’s official residence about the couple’s conduct. Typically, Netanyahu’s response has been to accuse the media and his political enemies of plotting against him and his scandal-prone government. It is unlikely the attorney general, a Netanyahu appointee and his former personal attorney, will act on these charges before the election.
Netanyahu has retained Jacob Weinroth, a top defense attorney specializing in white-collar crime, to represent him and his wife.
While all this was percolating, Netanyahu responded to recent anti-Semitic attacks in Paris and Copenhagen by calling on Jews everywhere, particularly in Europe, to get out while they can and “come home” to Israel, where they could be safe.
They told him to mind his own business.
French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and other top officials were described as furious with Netanyahu. Some officials considered his call to emigrate insulting and tasteless “electioneering.” Danish Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior echoed the view of many Jewish leaders when he said he was “disappointed” in Netanyahu. His call will have little impact on American Jewry.
The toughest news of the week was the public acknowledgment of what many have suspected: the US government does not trust Netanyahu with its secrets, particularly involving the Iran nuclear talks.
He selectively leaks information, often distorted and out of context, to serve his political agenda, risking the national security of both countries and the confidence of his major ally, said administration officials.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Netanyahu has deliberately distorted American positions in the negotiations by “cherry picking” information and leaking portions selectively. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki echoed that message.
As of this writing no time has been set for Netanyahu’s speech to the annual AIPAC conference, which begins Sunday. He is expected to address the Congress on Tuesday.
Speaker of the House John Boehner admitted he intentionally kept the invitation, which he worked out with Ambassador Ron Dermer, secret from the administration because he feared the White House might interfere.
Dermer said the trouble he created with the deception was worth it because of the importance of his boss’ message, but when the heat started rising and the word around town was that Dermer was toast in the eyes of the administration, he tried to toss Boehner under the proverbial bus. He told The New York Times “it was the speaker’s prerogative to do, and that he would be the one to inform the administration.”
The plan was for Netanyahu to give new sanctions legislation, which the administration considers a threat to the ongoing talks with Tehran, the momentum to pass with a veto-proof majority, handing the prime minister a trophy to take home in time for the March 17 election and delivering Obama a humiliating defeat. But it backfired when Democrats and some Republicans saw through this and forced the bill to be put off at least until after the Israeli elections.
Ironically, if Netanyahu hadn’t let rank partisanship and his ego shape his agenda, he might have had the victory he sought.
This will probably be the first time an Israeli leader came to Washington and couldn’t get a meeting with the president, vice president or secretary of state.
A CNN poll out this week showed 63 percent of Americans think he should stay home. But he won’t, of course.
Netanyahu picked this fight by arranging the speech that he knew would only exacerbate his already strained relations with the administration. His motivation was not national security but partisan self-interest. He could have achieved more by staying home, which is what many of his security officials advised.
The Mossad warned American officials that the new Iran sanctions legislation would jeopardize negotiations, Bloomberg news service reported. Secretary of State John Kerry said they told him new sanctions “would be like throwing a grenade into the process.”
And along came Netanyahu.
Guy Ziv, director of American University’s Israel National Security Project, contends most of Israel’s top security experts “regard Netanyahu as a weak leader whose poor judgment has eroded Israel’s deterrence and harmed Israel’s relationship with its most important ally, the United States, and whose lack of strategic vision undermines Israel’s national security interests.”
Netanyahu has ignored the advice from American Jewish leaders and Israelis across the political spectrum to cancel the trip.
He wants to come to Washington because he knows he will get a rousing reception from the Congress, with Republicans standing and cheering repeatedly in an effort to embarrass Democrats who wish he’d have stayed home, and then more adulation at AIPAC along with a plethora of television interviews, all of which will get a lot of air time back home in the two weeks before the election.
And that is what this trip is all about. Iran is just a prop and Obama a foil.