We don’t blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for acting in what, we are sure, he believes to be the best interests of his country. And we don’t blame American politicians for having conflicting views over the best way to help serve Israel’s – and the world’s – interests regarding its standoff with Iran.
But Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress today is a mistake, nonetheless. Ill-timed and ill-conceived, it stands to be of no more than little benefit to him and, in fact, could be politically damaging here and at home.
This issue isn’t about whether the United States should support Israel or defend its right, and its ability, to exist. Israel is the United States’ only true friend in the Middle East and the current flap will not change that relationship. The issue behind Netanyahu’s appearance in Congress is about strategies. He opposes President Obama’s negotiation approach to Iran and, ignoring what must have been an internal voice counseling otherwise, accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s unwise invitation to address Congress.
It’s a mess. Israelis go to the polls to elect a new government on March 17 and polls suggest that Netanyahu’s Likud is facing a stiff challenge by Isaac Herzog and the Zionist Union, an electoral alliance between Labor, led by Herzog, and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Thus, Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has taken on the air of inappropriate electioneering, even to some of his supporters.
And not just electioneering, but electioneering of a sort that can put Americans off. It is unusual for a head of government to speak to Congress without the invitation first having gone through the normal diplomatic channels involving the presidential administration. Thus, Netanyahu’s speech also appears to be an effort to bypass the administration and speak directly to the American people – which of course is precisely what it is.
Some Americans might not mind that, but others will. Unless he has some dramatic new information to share, the prime minister’s appearance in Congress stands to accomplish little but to put off people who already support Israel.
There is another problem with Netanyahu’s speech, and it is a domestic one. Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu was clearly meant as a partisan insult to Obama, meaning that not only is the prime minister’s appearance unlikely to create anything of value for him, it will also drive yet another wedge into American politics. The Obama-haters may cheer, but few others will celebrate the speaker of the House breaking protocol in a naked bid to embarrass the president.
It is no secret, of course, that Netanyahu and Obama have a strained relationship. That, in itself, isn’t much to worry about. Both are committed to the nations’ relationship, which is crucial. That relationship will endure, but Obama will be replaced by someone else in two years and Netanyahu will also, at some point, belong to history.
The dispute over how to deal with Iran is, indeed, a troubling one. A nuclear Iran would be a nightmare, almost everyone agrees. But how do you prevent it? Short of war, the only answer is economic sanctions and negotiations – exactly the approach the administration is taking.
The emerging deal – like all deals – is imperfect. It would allow Iran to keep some of its nuclear technology in return for strict oversight designed to keep Iran from building a bomb. The administration is working hard to strike a deal. Netanyahu says such a deal threatens Israel’s security.
But unless Netanyahu is advocating for pre-emptive war, his position must be that Obama should approach negotiations differently. Fair enough. Well-informed people can have many different ideas about how best to deal with Iran. It’s not something over which Congress or Netanyahu should break protocol and, if it is, does that mean Herzog also will be invited to speak? Or does Boehner also want to insult a possible future prime minister?
As we said, it’s a mess, and one that never had to happen.