Bibi’s March of Folly

The planned upcoming address of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netnyahu to the U.S. Congress, despite the protests of U.S. President Barack Obama has once again shone a spotlight on the delicate relationship between Netanyahu’s Jerusalem and Obama’s Washington.  In his piece “Meddling monarch myopia“, Eric Sherby defended Netanyahu’s actions and claimed that Israel’s Prime Minister has been held to a “double standard”, as evidenced by the criticism expressed to members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Jordan’s King Abdullah regarding the Obama Administration’s ISIS policy.  I would like to respectfully disagree with the first claim and question the relevance of the second.

The first point made in the piece is that the claims made by the White House that their opposition to the visit is purely out of respect for the integrity of Israel’s upcoming Knesset elections is disingenuous.  The support of the Clinton Administration for Ehud Barak’s 1999 bid to unseat Netanyahu as Prime Minister is brought as one example of such meddling.  This point is combined with the comparison to King Abdullah who is presented as being shielded from U.S. pressure due to his monarchical rule whereas Netanyahu “suffers” from heading a democratic government that is thus liable to electoral manipulations.  The piece then goes on to point out the decision of certain Democrats to boycott Netanyahu’s speech, correctly identifying it as unprecedented in the history of U.S.-Israel relations.

On the first point, it is indeed no secret that the Obama Administration dislikes Netanyahu and would prefer to see a Left-Wing government take office in Israel.  This fact is indeed so well known that Netanyahu- particularly considering his experience from 1999- should have been keenly aware that the Obama Administration would try to influence the elections and should have proceeded with caution.  His decision to address Congress, against the stated wishes of the President, only two weeks before elections in Israel, was an invitation to the Obama Administration to meddle in these elections.  Whether or not the Administration’s reaction was “fair” or consistent with the way that Obama has treated other world leaders is irrelevant.  When deciding on policy, Netanyahu is not tasked with assessing the fairness of a certain response but rather its likelihood.

This is particularly so as Netanyahu clearly has political motives for speaking to Congress.  Whether or not these are his primary motives cannot be known but it is undeniable that projecting himself as a respected world leader, whose opinion is sought out by the U.S. Congress and is acting to protect Israel from a threat that he has come to be uniquely associated with, has clear electoral benefits for him.  It is often difficult to tease apart the political motivations of politicians actions from the “professional motivations”, but the timing of the speech certainly heightens its potential political impact, thereby heightening the political motivations for making it.  Therefore, Netanyahu cannot make a speech who’s timing can be construed as highly political and then take umbrage at the Obama Administration’s responding in kind.

The second point that the piece makes is in reference to King Abdullah’s alleged criticism of the Obama Administration to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  There is a major difference between criticism offered while meeting Senators as part of an official state visit that included meetings with the President and making a speech at the Congress in an effort to convince its members to oppose the President’s policy. The former can be construed as legitimate criticism, whereas the latter is characteristic of a public attempt to show-up the President- and to meddle in U.S. politics.

In the context of the former, it has been argued that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, who formally invited Netanyahu to address Congress, did so in an effort to assert Congressional influence in matters of foreign policy.  While this is a legitimate goal in its own right, the Prime Minister of Israel should not allow the good standing of the State of Israel to be embroiled in a tug-of-war between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. Government.  Israel’s long-term interests are not served by becoming too closely associated with one branch of government over another, or with one political party over another.  Netanyahu should not allow Israel to be used as a political weapon that American politicians wield against one another in their internal struggles.

Later on, the piece refers to Israeli security and the Iranian nuclear threat as “life-and-death issues”.  This contextualization of the speech suggests that it is a necessary step that Netanyahu is taking to ensure Israeli security.  The presumption is that Netanyahu will successfully convince members of Congress of the severity of the Iranian threat and the perils of concluding a deal with Tehran that does not dismantle key aspects of its nuclear program.  If I believed that this speech could achieve successful outcomes on this issue that could not be achieved otherwise, that would be one thing.  It could be argued that with the stakes so high, Netanyahu could be forgiven for his actions if they were necessary to prevent a nuclear holocaust.

I however, do not believe that to be the case.  Will Netanyahu, speaking at an internationally televised event, reveal sensitive intelligence to sway the minds of the assembled members of Congress?  Barring a sudden decision to reveal sensitive information to every man, women and child on the planet with a radio, television set or internet connection, Netanyahu’s speech will most likely be a rehashing of the ideas and arguments that he has been forth over the past six years.  Are we to believe that the members of Congress will cast their votes and advance political goals simply on the strength of Netanyahu’s eloquence?  That seems fanciful at best.  An eloquent speech in Congress can however clearly advance Netanyahu’s political agenda, two weeks before Election Day in Israel.

As for the final point of the original piece, the decision of some members of Congress to boycott the speech is indeed unprecedented, and that should reflect poorly on Netanyahu at least as much as it does on the boycotters.  Netanyahu, through this and other actions, has dangerously pushed support for the State of Israel in the direction of becoming a partisan issue.  Combined with demographic trends in the United States, this does not bode well for Israel.

Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress has shown poor judgement on his part.  He has either miscalculated or ignored the potential volatility of this decision under the current circumstances and the negative ramifications of that decision on U.S.-Israel relations.  Netanyahu can be reasonably accused of grossly and flagrantly intervening in U.S. politics and doing so immediately before elections for the Knesset.  His actions have antagonized Democrats to the point of a partial boycott, furthering threatening to make support for Israel a partisan issue.  President Obama and the boycotters clearly have their own ax to grind and are not simply responding to Netanyahu but the Prime Minister’s actions have given them the opportunity to advance their particular agenda.

None of this is to say that Israel’s Prime Minister, be it Netanyahu or future Israeli leaders, should never clash with the White House.  Israel’s national interests, particularly security interests must be jealously guarded, at times at the cost of opposing the President.  However, these interests need to be advanced and protected wisely and responsibly.  What we have seen from Netanyahu over the past few weeks on this issue has been neither wise nor responsible.

About the Author
Yona holds an M.A. in International Relations from Hebrew University.