By Avi Davis
As love affairs go, there could not be one more honeyed than that between the State of Israel and the United States Congress.
For decades, through one Administration after another, Israel has been able to count on Congressional backing no matter what its alleged sins. Thus, when Israel hit Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak in 1981, and severe condemnation followed from the Reagan White House, there was not even a squeak of denunciation from Congress. When the the George H.W. Bush Administration in 1990 refused to follow through with promised loan guarantees in protest of continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, outrage in Congress forced the White House to back down; When George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condeeleza Rice began pressuring Israeli leaders to return to negotiations, Congressional counter pressure ensured that her efforts were weakened.
Netanyahu, who has served in office for almost exactly the same length of time as Obama himself, has endured the testiest relationship of any Israeli prime minister with a sitting U.S. President.
The Obama Administration has repeatedly displayed its disdain for the Israeli leader, citing his intransigence on peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and picking fights over trivial matters such as housing developments in Jerusalem proper. Relations hit a low most notably in 2010 when, during a visit to the White House, the Israeli prime minister was deliberately snubbed as he sat alone with his advisers in the West Wing while Obama abruptly departed their meeting to eat dinner with his family. As recently as this summer, when Israel was engaged in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza to silence the rocket attacks pouring down on its population, Obama and Netanyahu exchanged harsh words with one another and the Administration delayed an Israeli request for replacement of spare parts for its weaponry while also almost certainly instructing the FAA to ban, for a short while, commercial flights to Tel Aviv.
It is little wonder then that at this nadir of relations between the State of Israel and the U.S. Administration, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, has invited Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of both houses of Congress?
In response to the Boehner invitation, the Obama Administration stated that there would be no scheduled meeting between the two leaders during the prime minister’s Washington trip, having previously indicated that protocol had been breached since planning for such visits is traditionally conducted through the White House alone and not through other branches of government.
So with a deep freeze crystallizing on the already frosty relationship, the two questions which might be asked are: why did Boehner invite Netanyahu now to speak to Congress?; And what does Netanyahu hope to achieve by his appearance?
The answer to the first question probably has as much to to do with the exercise of political muscle for Boehner as it does with the realities of Israel’s geopolitical challenges. The sweeping victory of the GOP in November’s Congressional elections, gave notice to the White House that Republican control of both houses of Congress would signal a shift in power that the GOP would not hesitate to exercise when it felt the time appropriate. That time might be now as negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program become continuously extended. The recent joint press conference of the President with British prime minister David Cameron in which the two leaders insisted that Congress not impose new sanctions during on-going talks has been greeted in Congress with frustration and a degree of contempt. In fact Robert Menendez, the Democratic co-sponsor of a bill to impose those additional sanctions on Iran has labeled the President’s as “sounding like talking points that come straight of Tehran. ”
The lack of seriousness with which the Obama Administration views the Iranian nuclear threat was on full display when the President stated in the same press conference that the talks had less than a 50% chance of succeeding. This was of course another way of stating his belief that negotiations are actually bound to fail. If so, what contingency plans is the President offering should negotiations come to nothing? He refuses to say or even address the issue.
Congressional leaders have taken this as evidence of an emerging policy of appeasement which they justifiably view with alarm. Many, even in his own party, see a President out of touch and out to lunch (or out to dinner in the case of Netanyahu) on foreign policy, living, as Daniel Henniger has commented in the Wall Street Journal, on his own private fantasy island, marooned from the pressing realities of a dangerous world. Although the President has stated that he is resolved that Iran will never obtain a nuclear weapon, what he is really saying is that it will not obtain such a weapon on his watch – a very different thing.
In the meantime, Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted Boehner’s invitation and will speak before a joint session of Congress on March 3rd.
With an approaching national election in Israel on March 17,, many have speculated that Netanyahu engineered the invitation himself in the hope of boosting his political fortunes in his own country. However that does not entirely square with Israel’s pressing existential concerns about the Iranian menace – which are reflected across Israel’s political spectrum. For years Netanyahu has issued public warnings – before joint sessions of Congress and at the United Nations – about Iran’s nuclear arms program, emphasizing not only how it threatens Israel’s security, but how it challenges world peace. The Israelis have been insistent on a tough sanctions regime but have equally insisted that the West must be united in confronting the Iranian regime, (by force,if necessary) since that regime has been, for decades, a sponsor of international terrorism and whose leaders have repeatedly threatened not just Israel but neighboring states.
It is obvious that Netanyahu has abandoned any hope that Obama will come to view the threat of a nuclear Iran as seriously as either he or as Israelis in general do. He recognizes, as many Israeli prime ministers have before him, that Presidents come and go but Congressmen can retain their seats for multiple terms. He also understands the shift in power in Washington DC as the GOP gears up for a full frontal assault on the Obama agenda and seeks to expose the President’s weak grasp of foreign policy. The Israeli prime minister’s transparent attempt to conduct an end run around the presidency and speak directly to those whom he regards as true friends of the State about an issue central to its physical survival, should not be seen as a cynical electoral calculation but as a responsible act of statecraft, that is extremely time sensitive.
In this way he will be speaking not just to the representatives of the American people but just as surely to the next American president – a man or woman whom he hopes will have a much broader and more incisive understanding of the geopolitical threats facing both the United States and Israel – and with a greater political will to act than the current resident in the White House.