Elizabeth—Egos. Human sentiments playing themselves out on a world stage. Partisan politics mixing with the Obama Administration’s progressive moves to sign a nuclear treaty with Iran, a nation that has in the past encouraged the annihilation of Israel.
Danny Ayalon has been through the drama before. He was Israel’s ambassador to the US from July 2002 until November 2006. His service occurred during the administrations of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and US President George W. Bush
Wednesday, while traveling to speak to high school students at the Jewish Education Center in Elizabeth, Ayalon spent some time discussing with JLNJ what seems like a political runaway train.
He is also in a position to have an informed opinion. Ayalon, who was recently Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, is currently a visiting professor of foreign policy studies at Yeshiva University.
On March 2, the day prior to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, Ayalon will host a media luncheon at Stern. He will be discussing Netanyahu’s appearance, the strains in place between both Israeli and US administrations and President Barack Obama’s movement towards a nuclear pact with Iran.
“It’s unfortunate that the whole issue of the Prime Minister’s speech before Congress has become so politicized,” Ayalon said. “But the relationship that the U.S. and Israel have includes shared common values. Certainly national security is a vital interest of both nations. For Israel, the relationship it has with the U.S. is bigger than a specific incident occupying our minds.”
Certainly, most people who follow the news of the Middle East know that US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-8-Ohio) invited the Israeli PM to address a joint session of Congress on March 3. These invitations traditionally are offered by the Administration. Obama, it has been reported, won’t meet Netanyahu since he had nothing to do with the invitation.
National media have reported in past days that the partisan nature of the invitation—a Republican leader inviting Netanyahu—could mean that many Democratic Hill members stay way as a sign of support for Obama.
There are those media political wonks who have questioned Netanyahu’s timing of the speech since Israel’s national elections are being held on March 17. The Obama Administration has said that it wouldn’t meet with Netanyahu anyway, because Israel’s elections are so close. Still others fault Netanyahu for addressing Congress when he can give the same sort of forceful speech at the March 1-3 AIPAC Policy Conference, also being held in Washington, D.C.
“The stakes are high,” said Ayalon.
Netanyahu sees the easing of sanctions on Iran as an existential threat to Israel.
Ayalon said that his experience working with Sharon and Bush underscored the need for both countries to maintain a level of trust and respect.
“That trust and respect helped us achieve,” he said. “We didn’t want to shout at each other through leaks in the press.”
Ayalon added that perhaps the best solution to Netanyahu’s Congressional appearance would have been to also invite Isaac Herzog, the PM’s major opponent from the Labor Party and to allow him to speak as well. This, he said, might have swayed Obama to meet with then with Netanyahu and his rival.
Meanwhile, the former ambassador said, the relationship between the two nations is taking a major hit.
“That relationship is the window that the world’s eye judges us by,” he said. “If the world sees acrimony at the top, this is dangerous. I believe we need to have a period of calming down. We have to be talking to one another. I think all of this amounts to an unfortunate situation where two countries friendly to one another find themselves in a crossfire between Democrats and Republicans.”
But Ayalon added that he knows Netanyahu well “and in my opinion his speech will be fine.”
After the speech? Ayalon said that world opinion is watching the Obama Administration and the P5+1 nations (U.S., France, United Kingdom, Russia, China plus Germany) as they negotiate further with Iran. What kinds of sanctions will still exist? Which ones won’t?
“Iran is 6,500 centrifuges crazy,” he said. “But that said, Iran is still a vulnerable nation. And this is a time when I hope that the Republicans and Democrats in Congress will continue to show a strong front vis a vis Iran.”
Ayalon said that in the end, Netanyahu’s Congressional appearance might cause some short-term disagreement between Israel and the US. It’s the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister that is under the political microscope. When this bond isn’t as strong, he said that Israel’s enemies get the impression that the friendship’s foundation is shaken.
What makes it more difficult is the Obama Administration’s talks with Iran is that signature foreign affairs “accomplishment,” the President wants to make part of his legacy.
For Ayalon, who told JLNJ he is looking at a possible future run for political office in Israel, this issue has forced Democrats and even American Jews to make a choice between the office of the Presidency and Israel.
That relationship, he said, is stronger than “this current issue, and always will be.”
By Phil Jacobs