The drama surrounding House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress about sanctions on Iran got a little more complicated today. But while the timing of the event was moved, the controversy over the visit continued to obscure the debate over the real issue: the president’s antipathy to any actions that might upset Iran. Thus, rather than put the White House on the defensive as Boehner hoped it would, the announcement about Netanyahu served to distract the media from what otherwise might have been the story of the day: the fact that Democratic Senator Robert Menendez aptly characterized the administration’s position on sanctions as something that “sounds like talking points coming out of Tehran.”
Faced with criticism for accepting the invite without consulting with the administration, the date of the event was pushed back from February 11 to early March when it will coincide with the annual AIPAC Conference in Washington. But anyone who thinks that this will cool down the tensions that had arisen between the President Obama and the Israeli government is wrong. The White House made a point of saying today that the president would not meet with Netanyahu while he was on this visit to the United States. This is a snub that is consistent with past practices about foreign leaders on the eve of their own elections (as Netanyahu will be prior to the March Knesset election) but also one that sent a clear message about Obama’s disdain for the prime minister.
Meanwhile, the debate over whether it was appropriate for Boehner to bring in Netanyahu and wise for the Israeli to accept the invite continues.
In defense of Boehner, the idea that he is the first speaker of the house to conduct his own foreign policy doesn’t hold water. His predecessor Nancy Pelosi visited Syria despite the opposition of the Bush administration and sent an unfortunate signal of congressional indifference the crimes of the Assad regime.
Nor is it fair to treat Netanyahu’s apparent desire to intervene in an internal American debate about sanctions as a unique event. After all, just last week British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had called several U.S. senators to lobby them to vote against more sanctions. If Cameron can try to persuade senators to back the president’s stand against pressure on Iran, it is not reasonable to pretend that it is a major breach of protocol for Netanyahu to give Congress his opinions on the issue when they have invited him to address a joint session.
Nevertheless, one has to question whether it is wise for Netanyahu to accept an invitation that clearly involves him in a tug-of-war between the GOP leadership and the president.
It is true that Iran is not, strictly speaking, a partisan issue. Large numbers of Democrats, in both the House and the Senate, lined up to support increased sanctions last year before they were torpedoed by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Moreover, Menendez’s decision to directly challenge Obama on Iran in a face-to-face confrontation last week at a Senate Democratic conference shows that there are a lot of Democrats who are appalled by the president’s clear preference for détente with Iran instead of pressuring it to give up its nukes.
Boehner and others might have hoped that Netanyahu’s eloquence on the issue and deft American political touch would help turn the tide on the sanctions debate and help bring in large numbers of Democrats to build a veto-proof majority for the bill co-sponsored by Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk.
But unfortunately Boehner’s invitation has made Netanyahu the issue rather than Obama’s indefensible stance against a measure that would aid rather than hurt diplomacy. Leaving aside the uncertain political implications of yet another spat with the White House on Netanyahu’s reelection prospects, unlike almost every previous conflict between the two leaders, this one cannot be described as one that Obama picked. Though it is in the best interests of Israel, its moderate Arab neighbors, and the world for Congress to act to give Iran a reason to avoid stonewalling the West in the nuclear talks, this move can be represented, fairly or unfairly, as going beyond the normal behind-the-scenes lobbying that Israel and other allied countries always do.
Netanyahu has often been unfairly criticized for stoking conflict with Obama when, in fact, most of the time he has been on the receiving end of provocations and cheap shots from an administration bent on undermining him as well as downgrading the alliance with Israel. But in this case, Netanyahu has stepped into something that will do him and his cause very little good.
Foes of Israel have often sought to cast conflicts between Washington and Jerusalem as personal feuds between presidents and prime ministers, something that dates back to the effort to get the Senate to choose “Reagan or Begin” in the debate over the sale of AWACS airplanes to Saudi Arabia. In this case, that’s a crude distortion of clear differences between an administration that has abandoned its principles on Iran and Israeli government that is trying to remind Congress of its duty to act to safeguard the security of the Middle East. But if the perception that Netanyahu is allying himself with Boehner allows Obama to peel off a few weak-willed pro-Israel but partisan Democrats, that will be enough to sustain the president’s veto– especially when sanctions advocates might have had the votes anyway. Though pro-Israel activists are celebrating Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation in the belief that his rhetoric will turn the tide on sanctions, this was an unforced error on Israel’s part. If they are to prevail, they need to change the conversation from one about an Obama-Netanyahu feud to the facts about the sanctions debate that Menendez is trying to bring to the public’s attention.