Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed Congress. President Obama was not pleased.
The Republican party has long sought to make support for Israel a partisan matter, using it as a wedge issue to convince America’s Jews to vote Republican. (Remember all the talk in 2012 of President Obama “throwing Israel under the bus”?) These efforts always fail, and American Jews continue to consistently vote Democratic.
Netanyahu’s speech was an interesting new twist in the relationship though. After Obama won re-election, Bibi appointed Ron Dermer, a former aide to Newt Gingrich, as ambassador to the U.S. In the diplomatic world — which values subtlety, dialogue and respect — this appointment was outright aggressive.
Dermer then coordinated Netanyahu’s address to Congress, intentionally keeping the White House in the dark. The announcement of the address came the day after Obama’s State of the Union address. It seems fairly clear that Dermer and Netanyahu were looking to pick a fight.
Suddenly, Israel was a hotly partisan issue. In the end, fifty-eight Democratic members of Congress — as well as Vice President Joe Biden — skipped Netanyahu’s address. President Obama and Secretary Kerry opted not to meet with the Prime Minister during his time in Washington. Something that the Republicans had failed to accomplish for a generation, Netanyahu had helped pulled off overnight.
Perhaps most shockingly. Senate Democrats, looking to keep things civil, invited Netanyahu to meet with them privately before his address… and he refused.
His rationale was that it would add to the partisan atmosphere surrounding his speech. It is hard to imagine a more disingenuous — or twisted — interpretation.
Netanyahu’s argument for addressing Congress, against the explicit wishes of the White House, was that he had a message so important that all other issues, however petty (like U.S. support at the U.N. and continued intelligence sharing) were secondary. Senate Democrats handed him an olive branch while he was still wielding his diplomatic hacksaw, and he rejected it. If his message was so important that he was willing to jeopardize a relationship with his most strategic international ally, it is simply shocking that he would so cavalierly reject this meeting.
So that meeting never took place, and Bibi addressed Congress. He of course delivered a rousing speech. He is an amazing orator, his English is native and he knows how to work a room.
But what of the aftermath?
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was seen on CSPAN visibly shaking her head and throwing up her hands, commented after the speech that it was “insulting to the intelligence of the United States.” President Obama swatted away the speech by saying simply that it was “nothing new.”
Two days later, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Fareed Zakaria entitled “Netanyahu enters never-never land.” It contained this little nugget:
For almost 25 years now, Netanyahu has argued that Iran is on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon. In 1996 — 19 years ago — he addressed the Congress and made pretty much the same argument he made this week. Over the last 10 years he has argued repeatedly that Iran is one year away from a bomb.
— WH National Security (@NSCPress) March 6, 2015
Their hit was not softened with pretext or nuance, they simply tweeted an article calling Netanyahu a war-hungry world leader who has been wrong about Iran for decades.
If Speaker Boehner was hoping to make Israel a partisan issue, he has certainly taken a step in the right direction.
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