Netanyahu’s speech before Congress–shortsighted and harmful
There has been a long standing informal protocol regarding relations between Israel and the United States: No partisan dealings at the top level! That means with Congress or the presidency. The relationship is based upon mutual need and long standing friendship between the two countries. This protocol has been observed with many different parties in power on both sides, from the socialist-oriented Labor Party to right-of-center Likud in Israel, and with both Republican and Democrat parties in both congress and the presidency. The protocol has survived through the years despite differences of opinion between the two countries, even through Eisenhower’s undoing of the military gains by the triumvirate of U.S. allies, Israel, France and the U.K. in the Suez War of 1956. It survived Israel’s huge losses in the surprise attack by Arab countries during Yom Kippur in 1973, even though it was learned that U.S. intelligence had deliberately misled Israel by understating Syria’s surface-to-air missile capability. Now, with the invitation by Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress, regarding the U.S. policy towards Iran, made without consulting with President Obama first, this protocol has been breached. It further transgresses a corollary protocol that requires the U.S. from taking actions that could be viewed as interfering with Israeli politics. With an Israeli parliamentary election scheduled for less than two weeks after Netanyahu’s proposed speech before Congress, it is viewed, in Israel, and by many in the U.S., as an interference in Israel’s election.
Understand just a little bit about the background to this situation. Both the U.S. and Israel are committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Both supported the existing sanctions in order to pressure Iran. Neither Israel nor the U.S. trusts Iran’s word alone. The difference as of this time rests on whether to junk the diplomacy that is nearing its final stage, which has involved input from many other U.S. allies, and some fence sitters, and which demands methods of verification of Iran’s nuclear program, or increase the sanctions right now, effectively wrecking all of the diplomatic negotiations. On the world stage, almost every other country views diplomacy as a first step, which, in the absence of an exigent threat from Iran requiring emergency reaction, should be pursued before escalating the pressures on Iran. President Obama has been personally involved in the negotiations through his Secretary of State, John Kerry. In this highly partisan national environment, the Republican House of Representatives has been discussing a bill to increase the sanctions at once, effectively torpedoing the diplomatic relations. Naturally, President Obama, joined by many Democrats in the Congress, have opposed this action. President Obama has already signaled that he’d veto any measure to increase sanctions on Iran, at this time, until we see the results of the negotiations with Iran, which are reaching a crescendo. He also has opposed the Netanyahu speech as a clear interference in Israel’s elections.
Two other facts should be noted: 1) Jews in America have a history of largely voting Democratic. But the rate at which they vote Democratic has declined in recent years. A new Gallup Poll found it declining to 61 percent from 71 percent the last time they polled the issue. 2) Good relations with the United States has been #1 or #2 in issues of most importance to Israelis in almost every poll I’ve seen through the years.
Against this backdrop, Rep. Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu was clearly partisan, and clearly directed at eroding the Democrats’ advantage with Jewish voters (as well as increasing the Republicans advantage with fundamentalist Christian supporters of Israel).
In the U.S., thus far, senior Democratic U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and twelve other senators generally supportive of Israel, say they will boycott the speech. Many more in the House of Representatives have echoed Leahy’s action, and Vice-President Joe Biden, who by his office presides over the U.S. Senate, and who can cast the deciding vote in case of ties, is going to boycott the speech. In Israel, there is an even more pronounced uproar. Opponents of Netanyahu, as expected, are crying “foul” and claiming the speech will hurt Israel’s long term relationship with the U.S.. But others are urging Netanyahu to cancel the speech. Just today, Orly Azoulay urged Netanyahu to make a decision “not as a politician, but as a statesman who recognizes what’s good for his country.”
For Boehner’s part, he denies the partisan nature of the invitation. Netanyahu says that he didn’t know it would be partisan, but that he’s going ahead with the speech because of his strong feelings on the Iran threat to Israel.
These claims of naivete don’t impress most observers, this writer included. Netanyahu’s Likud is to Israeli Politics what the somewhat-to-the-right of center Republicans are to our political scene. Also involved would seem to be Natanyahu’s ego and an over-estimated view of his own powers. Whether his action will backfire in the forthcoming elections is difficult to say. He certainly has cemented his status with the religious far right, which he had alienated by forming a government without them last time. The rest of the Israeli political spectrum is more confusing, and time will tell, and shortly. In the U.S., I can only imagine the angst Netanyah has caused Israel’s Democratic and other liberal supporters. I spoke recently with one who was so angry he said that if Netanyahu goes through with the speech, he will give less in donations this year than in prior years. Myself, I have never cared for Netanyahu, or many of his policies, and this move strikes me as very short-sighted and harmful both to the U.S. political dialogue as well as Israel’s long term interests. It is a terrible and foolish precedent to set, as the political pendulum always swings the other way with time, and this is true for both the U.S. and Israeli political landscapes.