Netanyahu: The Elephant In The Room

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress on Iran has been widely criticized, in Israel and in the United States. The unimportant criticism focusses on the way the event was concocted: House Speaker John Boehner and Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., planned it in secret for weeks, then sprang it on the State Department and White House (which gave Dermer an opening to blame the Speaker’s office “for not notifying” the Administration). President Obama has declined to meet with Netanyahu; Secretary of State John Kerry has not condescended to meet with Dermer. The speech is scheduled for March 3rd, two weeks before the Israeli election, and will coincide with the yearly mega-conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where Netanyahu, as in past years, will be received as a champion.

The more important criticism of Boehner’s invitation rests on a fiction: that Netanyahu, the leader of an embattled ally, must depend on bipartisan American support for his country to confront its regional enemies. Netanyahu, in this story, has been reckless in making common cause with Republicans, a move that has inadvertently strengthened Obama’s hand in opposing a new Iran-sanctions bill. Democratic senators who had indicated support for the bill—which its largely Republican sponsors had hoped to pass over Obama’s objections, while negotiations with Iran are still ongoing—are now rallying to the President. Obama now almost certainly has enough votes to prevent an override of his veto, should it come to that. Vice-President Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Minority Leader of the House, are hinting that they and many other Democrats may not even show up for Netanyahu’s speech. The moral of this story, presumably, is that the U.S. and Israel have distinct interests when it comes to Iran, and that both Netanyahu and his Republican hosts have erred in trying to blur them. Above all, they should not have defied a sitting President, who has the constitutional authority to manage foreign policy.

Some of the commentators you’d most expect to support Netanyahu have expressed shock at the planned speech (although they sound a little like Captain Renault discovering gambling at Rick’s Café). Fox News’s Chris Wallace complained, “For Netanyahu to come here and side with Boehner against Obama on Iran seems to me like very dicey politics.” Jeffrey Goldberg, who made the case for the imminence of Iranian nuclear capacity, is now skeptical: “His recent actions suggest he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing.” Other new Netanyahu critics believe that he does. Dan Margalit, most often a Netanyahu cheerleader at the tabloid Israel Hayom, told Israel’s Channel 10 that Netanyahu’s “trip is not being taken for the sake of the interests of the state of Israel—rather for the needs of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud, for the Likud election campaign.” According to these observers, Netanyahu is injecting partisanship into what should be a bipartisan issue in both Israel and the United States, and is doing harm to Israel by showing the American Presidency disrespect.

There is a measure of truth to this story, but it obscures a more significant reality. In their wars of ideas and political networks, Netanyahu’s Likud and his American supporters are an integral part of the Republican Party’s camp, and Israel is too involved in the American political landscape and defense establishment for Netanyahu to be considered as distant as a foreign leader.

Read on at The New Yorker