What was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu thinking when he rejected an invitation from Senate Democrats to speak to a private meeting of their caucus? Netanyahu’s rationale is that he only wants to speak to bipartisan groups rather than to meet with either Democrats or Republicans and thereby be drawn into America’s partisan disputes. But by publicly rejecting what seems like an olive branch from Democrats, he is doing just the opposite. Rather than uphold the bipartisan nature of the pro-Israel coalition in Washington, the prime minister’s refusal is being interpreted as another snub to President Obama’s party after his decision to accept an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner without consulting with the White House. Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any worse for Netanyahu—at least as far as the way it is perceived in the United States—the Israeli leader dug himself and his country a slightly deeper hole in yet another unforced error.
As his official response indicates, it is likely that the prime minister’s office saw the invitation as a trap rather than an opportunity to counter the White House spin of his speech as the Israeli government taking sides with Republicans against the White House on the question of Iran sanctions. Since he rightly believes that speaking to Congress about the dangers from Iran’s nuclear program and the need for increased sanctions is an issue that transcends partisan loyalties, Netanyahu may have thought that accepting the invite from the Democrats would have been a tacit admission that he had erred in cooking up the speech with Boehner.
He may have been right about that. But, once again, the prime minister and his advisors—people who have a better grasp of Washington culture than most Israelis—have gotten so deep into the issue that they’ve lost sight of political reality. Rightly or wrongly, the speech to Congress is widely seen as a Netanyahu attack on Obama that is resented even by Democrats who agree with the prime minister and disagree with the president on Iran sanctions and the direction of the negotiations with Tehran. Rather than viewing the invitation from the Senate Democrats negatively, he should have taken it as an opportunity to prove that he had no interest in playing one party against another. If there were a problem with the perception of him meeting with one group of senators—something that is far from unprecedented—it wouldn’t have been too hard to persuade Republicans to meet with him too.
Instead, by stubbornly sticking to his narrative about the speech to Congress and ignoring the need to acknowledge that the story has gotten away from him, Netanyahu has done more damage to his reputation and, once again, assisted the administration’s efforts to brand him as a disruptive force within the alliance. Just at the moment when it seemed the discussion was shifting from one about the prime minister’s chutzpah to the latest dangerous round of concessions being offered to Iran by the president, we get another news cycle in which the focus is on Netanyahu’s incompetent management of relations with people who should be his allies in Congress.
Acknowledging this latest blunder doesn’t mean that Netanyahu’s position on Iran isn’t correct. The administration’s reported offer of a ten-year freeze with Tehran that would grant Western approval not only for Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but its eventual acquisition of a weapon is a betrayal of the president’s 2008 and 2012 campaign pledges on the issue. Though some were accusing Israel of making up stories about the talks in order to discredit the diplomatic process, it now appears that the worst fears about Obama’s push for détente with Iran are coming true. Rather than stopping Iran, the administration’s priority is making common cause with it to the detriment of the security of both America’s moderate Arab allies and the Jewish state.
This is the moment when the bipartisan pro-Israel community in this country should be uniting behind a push for more sanctions on Iran and opposition to appeasement of its nuclear ambitions. But by walking right into Obama’s trap, Netanyahu has reduced the chances of passing sanctions by a veto-proof majority. And by doubling down on this by refusing to meet with Senate Democrats, he has ensured that his speech will continue to be interpreted through a partisan lens rather than as a necessary cry of alarm that should be taken up by both parties.
It’s possible that, as I wrote yesterday, the duel with the White House may actually be helping Netanyahu in his reelection fight at home since it puts Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog in the unenviable position of being the Israeli ally of a president that is rightly viewed with suspicion by most voters in the Jewish state. But you don’t have to sympathize with either Obama or Herzog to understand that Netanyahu’s blunders are deepening the divide between Republicans and Democrats on Israel just at the moment when he should be redoubling his efforts to bridge them.
In the first six years of this administration, Netanyahu was roundly abused in the American press for his arguments with the president. But on the whole he conducted himself with dignity and strength and was rarely outmaneuvered. But in the last two months, Netanyahu has not been able to get out of his own way when it comes to managing relations with Congress or the White House. It may be too late for him to step back from the speech. But it isn’t too late to try and rectify the harm he is doing by rethinking his rejection of the Democrats’ invitation.
I don’t know exactly who is advising him to make these unforced errors but whoever it is, they should be fired or ignored in the future. Whether or not Netanyahu is reelected next month, the next prime minister of Israel is going to need both Republicans and Democrats in the years to come to maintain the alliance and to manage the growing threat from Iran that Obama is encouraging rather than stopping. Much to my surprise and others who thought him a brilliant political operator, Netanyahu seems to have forgotten that.