Dear Mr. Prime Minister:
The news of your impending visit to deliver an address to a joint session of our Congress, at the invitation of Speaker of the House John Boehner, has generated a major controversy here in America, both within and outside of the Jewish community. I know that it is a subject of much discussion in Israel as well. My reason for writing is simple. I am, with the greatest of respect for your office and your responsibilities, asking you to reconsider your visit, and not deliver the address.
I read just a few days ago a comment offered by your Ambassador to the United States, Ron Doermer, saying that addressing our Congress on the threat of a nuclear Iran is your “sacred responsibility.” All of us who love Israel and worry about its security must surely understand the great burden that is yours in insuring that Iran does not become a nuclear power. I certainly share that concern, and, for the record, completely agree with you that the sanctions against Iran should be ramped up, not eased. I do not believe that prolonging the negotiating process will increase the chance of securing a deal with Iran that is worth having, nor do I place great faith in President Obama’s ability to navigate the troubled waters of the Middle East in general, and Iran more specifically.
And yet … I completely and fiercely disagree with your decision to accept Speaker Boehner’s invitation to address our Congress. In so doing, you insert yourself and Israel in a most ungraceful manner into American foreign policy and presidential politics. No matter how great or legitimate your concerns about Iran might be, what you are doing is not only ill-advised, but also widely perceived even within large swaths of the American Jewish community as unconscionably arrogant. It threatens to do great damage to Israel’s interests in the long term, and may even move members of Congress who were inclined to support you on the sanctions issue to vote against them.
President Barack Obama shares no small measure of blame for this current disagreement. In encouraging British Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby, by phone, key Senators and Representatives against further sanctions, he certainly opened a door to foreign involvement in the process. That, too, was inappropriate, and ill-advised. But there is, to be sure, a world of difference between a few private phone calls and a widely publicized major address to a joint session of Congress. Boehner obviously has his own political agenda in issuing you this invitation. The Republican majority in both houses of Congress is anxious to flex its muscles on foreign policy, and there is no love lost between the Speaker and the President, and, for that matter, between the President and Congress as a whole.
But again, whatever those difficult issues in American political life may be, they are American issues, and not for Israel to take sides in. Your accepting the Speaker’s invitation can only be regarded as a public, dramatic and caustic rebuke to President Obama.
It is hardly a secret that the relationship between you and the President has been a difficult one, and clearly you view the world differently than he does. As a passionate Zionist, I am predisposed to see critical issues affecting Israel through Israel’s eyes, and as I mentioned earlier, I share your concern about Iran. But as a proud American, not least of all because of America’s invaluable strategic, political and material support for Israel, I am offended by the contempt with which you address your differences with President Obama.
It appears clear that you have thrown the dice, so to speak, with regard to Israel’s relationship with America, and have decided that the odds of a Democrat being elected in 2016 are so slim as to safeguard Israel from “payback” from a future Democrat administration. You seem sure that the Republicans will win, and you are betting Israel’s wellbeing and security on it.
But Mr. Prime Minister, there are two long years until America’s next presidential election. President Obama, though a lame duck, still controls the direction and implementation of American foreign policy. With the Palestinian Authority making an all-out push for statehood and an American veto in the UN one of the only means to stop it, and with the PA’s move to charge Israel with war crimes in the International Criminal Court, and America’s influence on of the only means to blunt that effort, and with Israel’s northern borders increasingly unstable and the need for Iron Dome installations more important than ever against a missile-heavy Hezbollah force in Lebanon, how can you possibly think that this is the right time to alienate and anger the President of the United States? Are you naïve enough to think that a Democrat could never win in 2016?
This is, as I see it, AIPAC’s moment. Without a doubt, the Obama administration will bring heavy pressure on AIPAC to cease and desist from its efforts to lobby Congress for enhanced sanctions. I will, without hesitation, stand with AIPAC in resisting that pressure. But what you are doing by accepting Speaker Boehner’s invitation is making AIPAC’s work that much harder. The members of Congress whom AIPAC will be lobbying are responsible to their constituencies. If I, a fiercely loyal Zionist, find your involvement in American politics so problematic, surely many of them will as well.
Last but certainly not least, Mr. Prime Minister, it is not lost on any of us in the Jewish community that you are in the midst of an unusually competitive election campaign. Your re-election is not at all a sure thing. With that election scheduled for mid-March and your speech to Congress in early March, followed immediately by your appearance and speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, what you are doing smacks at least as much of campaign political considerations as it does of “sacred obligation.” Are you willing to jeopardize Israel’s relationship with America because of your own political considerations?
Mr. Prime Minister, there is no joy to be had in writing a letter like this, and I would never do it unless I was convinced that what you are proposing to do is bad politics, and wrong for Israel in every way. Enhanced sanctions against Iran are critically important, but you should not be lobbying for them at a joint session of the American Congress.
Mr. Prime Minster, please reconsider your decision.
With love of Israel,
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.