OK, we get it. By accepting the invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress next month about the potential danger of a nuclear Iran without consulting the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was guilty of a breach of diplomatic protocol. And yes, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, may have advised Netanyahu poorly in this situation, which is a risk you take when you appoint an ambassador who has no prior diplomatic experience. But does anybody seriously believe that this protocol breach is the primary reason for the increased strain between the two countries?
There are no heroes in this story. Netanyahu himself has more diplomatic experience than Dermer and should have known the risks of accepting Boehner’s invitation without consulting the White House. His fear of the danger that a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel is real, but it’s hardly inconceivable that he was also motivated, at least in part, by the expectation that his address to Congress only two weeks before the upcoming Israeli general election might enhance his reelection prospects.
President Obama’s announced reason for refusing to meet with Netanyahu while he’s in Washington — that meeting with a foreign leader so close to his country’s election might be seen as interfering with that country’s domestic politics – doesn’t pass the straight face test. It’s Obama’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu that is creating a controversy that could conceivably affect the impending Israeli election; a routine courtesy visit might well have gone unnoticed. Vice President Biden – a genuine friend of Israel who more than once has appeared to be caught in the cross-fire between a country he has befriended and the President he serves – had his office announce that he could not attend the joint session which Netanyahu will address (where, as President of the Senate, he would normally join Boehner in presiding) because he had prior plans to be abroad on official business; his excuse might have been more credible had his office bothered to identify the country or countries he was allegedly planning to visit.
As for Speaker Boehner, whose invitation to Netanyahu started this kerfuffle, he had at least as great an obligation to consult the White House as did Netanyahu. After all, though both often seem to forget it, Boehner and Obama are supposed to be serving the same country. Once the controversy erupted, moreover, Boehner quietly stepped away from the spotlight, letting the Israelis take the heat for an incident that appeared to have started as a way for the Congressional Republicans to increase the pressure on Obama to abandon negotiations with Iran.
I could go on, for the list of non-heroes in this episode is a long one. It would encompasses many senators and representatives of both parties, some American Jewish leaders who should have known better and key figures in the Israeli opposition. But while casting a wider net to find additional people to blame may be emotionally satisfying, it doesn’t contribute to our understanding of these events, much less point to a way to get back to the serious issue under discussion – how to deal with Iran’s nuclear potential. We need to remember that while this is a story with no heroes, it is not a story with no villains. The villains are the fanatical mullahs who govern Iran – and they are, so far, the only ones to benefit from the storm of controversy resulting from Netanyahu’s lapse in diplomatic courtesy.
It is self-evident that allowing the Iranian fanatics to build nuclear weapons would not be in the interests of the United States and its allies. It is also self-evident that Iranian nukes would pose an existential threat to Israel but not to the United States. Unfortunately, to the extent we can tell from publicly available sources, Israel’s military technology may not be sufficient to knock out Iran’s nuclear capacity in one blow, but America’s probably would be. The upshot of this situation is that the country that has the capacity to eliminate the threat has little incentive to rush, while the country for which the removal of the threat is most urgent may lack the capacity to do so unilaterally. It is this dissonance between capacity and urgency – not irritation over a minor breach of protocol – that is at the heart of current controversy.
The breach of protocol, however, fits nicely into the story line that has been the focus of media attention since early in Obama’s first term – the lukewarm (at best) personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. To be sure, they don’t seem to like each other very much, though there are plenty of people – in both countries and elsewhere – who don’t like either of them. In the context of the affairs of state, how important are such personal relationships?
Perhaps a historical analogy will help. Last year we commemorated the centennial of the conflict that we now call World War I, one of the most destructive and pointless wars ever fought. In the last weeks before the shooting started, while inept statesmen from many countries were bungling their way toward war, there was a last-ditch effort to avoid the coming carnage through an exchange of correspondence between the heads of state of the two principal belligerents, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
The two monarchs were related and had long had a friendly personal relationship. They were by no means powerless figureheads along the lines of contemporary European monarchs, yet they were effectively powerless to stop the coming conflict. Their final correspondence (known as the Willy-Nicky Telegrams or the dear Willy-dear Nicky letters), was an attempt by those two monarchs to use the positive relationship between them to avert the war that neither wanted, and that would end up destroying both of them. Yet their efforts failed because, at the end of the day, their personal relations were less important than the interests of the countries they led. In the oft quoted words of the nineteenth century British statesman Lord Palmerston: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”
I do not mean to suggest that personal relationships between national leaders make no difference. Political leaders, after all, are still human beings with human feelings. They, like the rest of us, would prefer to deal with those they like and avoid dealing with those they dislike. Those who lead small countries that are dependent on the good will of larger countries particularly need to take advantage of every opportunity to motivate their larger allies to assist them. Cultivating good personal relations with the leaders of major powers is one tool that can be used to attain that goal. But the intense media scrutiny of the Netanyahu-Obama relationship – of which this breach of protocol is only the most recent example – suggests that we are confusing tactics with goals.
Whether or not Netanyahu goes through with his scheduled address to Congress — and as I write, it seems likely though not certain that he will — neither the speech itself nor the diplomatic bungling that precedes it will loom large in history. Obama and Netanyahu are pursuing the interests of their respective countries as they perceive those interests. It is inevitable that there will be occasions when their perceptions will lead them to different policy conclusions, but that’s no reason to panic. As long as the perceived long-term interests of both countries remain closely aligned, neither partisan posturing nor personal friction is likely to cause a serious rift between them. Let’s keep the day-to-day irritations in perspective.