U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are at it again. Netanyahu’s decision to accept Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to Congress without seeking consent from the White House is the latest flap in what is an already acrimonious relationship. Netanyahu intends to focus on the perils of leaving Iran with any nuclear capacity, a view held by Republican members of Congress and a significant number of Democratic members as well. While officials within the Obama administration seethed privately, initially the Obama administration trotted out its usual anodyne statement that this latest incident was but a minor hiccup in an unshakable relationship. However, Vice President Joe Biden’s decision to break protocol and skip Netanyahu’s speech is an unmistakable indication of the extent of President Obama’s anger with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s maneuver is set against the backdrop of the Israeli elections on March 17. Netanyahu is fighting for his political life as polls have consistently shown that his Likud party, the mainstream right-wing party, is essentially tied with Labor, the mainstream left-wing faction which has recently re-branded itself as the Zionist Union. Even if Likud can hold off its traditional rival, it will fall well short of a majority and will only maintain power by cobbling together a fragile coalition of parties whose leaders have been sharply critical of Netanyahu in the past year.
The left-leaning element of the Israeli media has consistently portrayed Netanyahu as an opportunistic megalomaniac, even for a politician, and regards his trip to Washington as a desperate and cynical stunt meant to draw a sharp distinction between his fortitude and the fecklessness of Zionist party leader Yitzchak “Buji” Herzog.
While Netanyahu has in fact shown himself to be a master political tactician, the media’s critique in this case is unfounded. Lobbying against an accommodative deal with Iran is more than Netanyahu’s hobbyhorse-as he sees it, his raison d’etre is to be a steward of Israel’s survival. While every leader in Israel’s short history would probably describe their role in a similar fashion, for Netanyahu this mandate means adopting an unyielding and arguably frantic approach to any issue he perceives as even a remote threat to Israel’s security. He has prioritized this mission above all else, including pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
However, the question remains whether Netanyahu’s gambit was purely a miscalculation borne of this single-mindedness, or also a deliberate attempt to embarrass President Obama. Netanyahu has defended his decision by maintaining that it is his duty to speak out at every opportunity against the existential threat to Israel posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. But as numerous pundits have pointed out, he would have been better served to quietly lobby Democratic senators about the importance of dismantling all of Iran’s centrifuges. Instead, his speech now looks like political theater that will only serve to alienate the very same senators who were presumably his target audience.
While Netanyahu and Obama clearly have a rocky relationship, it is still difficult to believe that Netanyahu specifically intended to insult Obama. Netanyahu’s cagey political instincts are such that it would seem impossible for him to have overlooked the fact that Obama has almost two years left in power and could still make his life miserable should he be reelected. Nonetheless, in 2011 Netanyahu did publicly and condescendingly lecture Obama about Israel’s geography after Obama committed the unforgivable sin of declaring that any peace deal with Palestinians should be based on pre-1967 borders with land swaps. In that case, he inexplicably antagonized a sitting President who has consistently supported Israel throughout his tenure, both militarily and diplomatically. Whether this behavioral pattern is due to zealousness, spitefulness or a combination thereof is unclear, but what is apparent is that Netanyahu has undermined the purpose of his trip and has permanently sabotaged his relationship with the leader of the free world.