The Cycle of Petulance in the U.S. and Israel

Nobody seems to be acting exclusively in the world’s best interest.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office on March 3, 2014.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
March 2, 2015, 2:55 a.m.

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s ad­dress to Con­gress will not re­duce Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar am­bi­tions or ar­sen­al. But it will di­min­ish an im­port­ant max­im of U.S. for­eign policy: Sup­port of Is­rael is a bi­par­tis­an is­sue.

Even more, the ugly pre­ced­ents set in the run-up to Tues­day’s ad­dress could make it harder for U.S. pres­id­ents to ex­ecute for­eign policy free of do­mest­ic polit­ics for years to come — a pro­spect that should worry Re­pub­lic­ans as much as Demo­crats.

Who do we blame? Three men lead­ing badly: Net­an­yahu, House Speak­er John Boehner, and Pres­id­ent Obama. Let’s re­view how we got here.

1. Draw­ing one of his fam­ous red lines, Obama de­clared that al­low­ing Ir­an to ob­tain a nuc­le­ar weapon “would not be tol­er­able” be­cause it would spark a nuc­le­ar-arms race in the Middle East. “I don’t bluff,” he told The At­lantic‘s Jef­frey Gold­berg three years ago. “We’ve got Is­rael’s back.”

2. Obama’s team is now ne­go­ti­at­ing a deal that ap­pears to give Ir­an the right to en­rich urani­um: It would al­low Tehran to keep thou­sands of cent­ri­fuges and would lapse after 10 or 15 years. The ad­min­is­tra­tion is de­mand­ing in­spec­tions of nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies, in­clud­ing urani­um mines.

3. Net­an­yahu fears the deal would al­low Ir­an to de­vel­op a nuc­le­ar weapon, which would cre­ate an ex­ist­en­tial threat to his na­tion. He fa­vors a con­tinu­ation of sanc­tions against Ir­an, which would be eased un­der a deal.

4. The White House says Obama’s ap­proach could avoid war. Net­an­yahu says Obama’s ap­proach could des­troy Is­rael.

5. Net­an­yahu and his aides, with the help of what Gold­berg called “their Re­pub­lic­an hand­maid­ens,” ar­ranged for the prime min­is­ter to ad­dress Con­gress. In a breach of pro­tocol, the White House was not con­sul­ted and Net­an­yahu ac­com­plished a for­eign lead­er’s dream: He used a U.S. polit­ic­al party as lever­age against the Amer­ic­an com­mand­er-in-chief.

6. This is also about polit­ics for Net­an­yahu. He faces an elec­tion in two weeks. “The more the White House cri­ti­cizes Net­an­yahu, the more votes he gets from the right and, to a cer­tain ex­tent, from the cen­ter,” Eytan Gil­boa, a pro­fess­or who spe­cial­izes in U.S.-Is­rael re­la­tions at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Il­an Uni­versity, told Politico.

7. House Speak­er John Boehner doesn’t like to be called a hand­maid­en. Not­ing that the House is an equal branch of gov­ern­ment, he jus­ti­fied the in­vit­a­tion by say­ing Net­an­yahu had im­port­ant things to say “about the ser­i­ous threat that Ir­an poses and the ser­i­ous threat of rad­ic­al Is­lam.”

8. An ad­dress was not needed to ex­plain the threat. Every mem­ber of Con­gress with ac­cess to news­pa­pers, a tele­vi­sion, or the In­ter­net already knows Net­an­yahu’s po­s­i­tion. In the Amer­ic­an me­dia, he’s as ubi­quit­ous as real­ity TV. “If all the art­icles, state­ments, and ana­lyses pro­duced in the United States on this sub­ject could be traded for cent­ri­fuges,” Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Robert Kagan wrote, “the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar pro­gram would be elim­in­ated in a week.”

9. Obama had a chance to swal­low his pride and rise above the pet­ti­ness — to be the adult. But, no: He re­fused to meet Net­an­yahu.

10. Obama doesn’t like to be hu­mi­li­ated. He and his aides de­cided to treat the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment as dis­missively as he does the GOP, ac­cus­ing the Is­rael­is of leak­ing ne­go­ti­ation de­tails, ques­tion­ing Net­an­yahu’s cred­ib­il­ity, and call­ing the con­gres­sion­al speech “de­struct­ive.”

11. On Sunday, Obama ally Di­anne Fein­stein said Net­an­yahu is “ar­rog­ant” for as­sert­ing that he speaks for all Jews. “He doesn’t speak for me on this,” the Cali­for­nia Demo­crat told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Uni­on.”

12. The same day, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry said the United States de­serves the “be­ne­fit of the doubt” in ne­go­ti­at­ing with Ir­an. Some might call that naïve, if not ar­rog­ant, giv­en the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cord of un­der­es­tim­at­ing threats, ove­rhyp­ing ac­cords, and back-ped­dling on for­eign com­mit­ments.

13. An NBC/Wall Street Journ­al polls shows that half of Amer­ic­ans do not think Boehner should have in­vited Net­an­yahu, com­pared with 30 per­cent who be­lieve it was fine. The res­ults broke along party lines.

This isn’t just about Is­rael. “From now on, whenev­er the op­pos­i­tion party hap­pens to con­trol Con­gress — a com­mon enough oc­cur­rence — it may call in a for­eign lead­er to speak to a joint meet­ing of Con­gress against a pres­id­ent and his policies,” Kagan wrote. “Think of how this might have played out in the past. A Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Con­gress in the 1980s might, for in­stance, have called the No­bel Prize-win­ning Costa Ric­an Pres­id­ent Oscar Arias to de­nounce Pres­id­ent Ron­ald Re­agan’s policies in Cent­ral Amer­ica. A Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Con­gress in 2003 might have called French Pres­id­ent Jacques Chir­ac to op­pose Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s im­pend­ing war in Ir­aq.”

All this leaves the world in a dan­ger­ous place. Net­an­yahu, Obama, and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are con­sumed by their sep­ar­ate polit­ics, fo­cused on win­ning the next news cycle rather than find­ing a way to avoid a nuc­le­ar-arms race and an­oth­er Middle East war.

We wouldn’t be at this place if Obama could be trus­ted to cut a strong deal, if Net­an­yahu hadn’t de­cided to sub­vert the pres­id­ent, if Boehner wasn’t such a polit­ic­al sop, if some­body had the cour­age to stop this cycle of petu­lance.

But, no. We’re left with a de­bate over blame — mean­ing­less pars­ing. It hardly mat­ters who is act­ing worse when nobody seems to be act­ing ex­clus­ively in the world’s best in­terests.

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