Monday, January 27, 2020

US House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a Joint Session of Congress on the question of Iran is a crude interference in Israeli election politics.

The speech, scheduled just two weeks before the Israeli elections, looks like payback for the Bibi’s efforts to round up the Jewish vote for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 and defeat Barack Obama. The announcement and acceptance of the invitation this week, which Boehner’s office reportedly confirmed, takes place at a moment when the Prime Minister’s standing in the world community—and most especially in the United States—is one of the largest issues of the campaign. The last time the Prime Minister addressed a Joint Session of Congress was at the invitation of Boehner and then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to set up a political platform from which Bibi could attack Obama. He was applying pressure on Obama to bomb Iran, and Cantor was seeking to dislodge Jewish support from the Democratic Party.

The strategy did not work.

The President resisted calls to bomb Iran. And the Cantor-Netanyahu strategy did not change the US political equation: American Jews overwhelmingly supported Obama and not Romney, despite every attempt to sway policy by repeated attacks on the President and the Republican candidates’ fundraising and friend-raising trips to Israel in the middle of the campaign. This was an attempt to change the standard American policy position—held by all post-1967 Presidents—which holds that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process negotiations are based on the 1967 borders, a position Netanyahu attacked vigorously before quietly giving up on that tactic.

The timing of Bibi’s 2011 speech to Congress, his urgent request for a 2012 meeting with Obama, five weeks before the US elections, and his 2013 speech at the UN, all were presented as being more urgent than they actually were. None of his dire predictions have come true—or at least not yet. It has been three years since the Joint Session speech, 26 months since the election and 18 months since the UN speech and Iran still does not have the bomb, while negotiations continue, albeit at a snail’s pace.

We should understand, sanctions are not a unilateral tactic. They require the cooperation of US allies to be effective and the US is unlikely to get cooperation if it unilaterally changes the terms of the negotiations.

The case for sanctions in the interim has gotten weaker—not because Iran is suddenly behaving nicely, but because the ultimate sanction is the drop in the price of oil, which is crippling the Iranian economy. Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman says he will maintain the cuts in prices. Russia and Venezuela are suffering for those cuts, so it is a three-fold victory for the US.  That drop would never have happened without the direct collaboration between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

We now know that the Israeli Ambassador to the US, a former political operative for the GOP before he made Aliyah—Ron Dermer—was in discussions to make the speech happen. Dermer is currently under investigation in Israel for violating election rules in Israel as a civil servant, and actively supporting the Prime Minister’s reelection campaign. He was in a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry for two hours the day before the announcement of Netanyahu’s speech to the Joint Session and never gave a hint of what was about to unfold. Kerry had made 50 calls to world leaders on behalf of Israel. It would not be a surprise if right now Dermer’s effectiveness as Israel’s Ambassador to the US is severely compromised.

Is this a quid-quo-pro on behalf of Sheldon Adelson, Bibi’s most ardent American supporter and the man who bankrolls him and the GOP? When he’s done in the Capitol, Bibi will head to AIPAC, which is risking its bi-partisan credentials by becoming a pro-Republican lobby here and a pro-Likud lobby in Israel.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe a nuclear-armed Iran poses an important danger to Israel and to the West. Acting alone or through non-state actors, it could cause grievous losses and increase dangers exponentially. At least for the time being, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have been forced into a strategic alliance with Israel.

It is unclear what impact this may have on the Israeli electorate two weeks before it votes. The central issue in the Israeli campaign is the Prime Minister. It is all about Bibi. Israelis have a sophisticated—and sometimes misguided—way of reading American politics. But the Speaker has chosen sides in the Israeli election. He and those Congressmen who will jump to their feet when Bibi speaks, face opposition from US supporters of the Israeli right, who see Netanyahu as too moderate, and those on the center and left, who see Netanyahu as a disaster.

Repeated standing ovations in Congress for a candidate for a Prime Minister of another country who stands before them and attacks the President of the country he is speaking in, will not sit well with many Americans, even among the most ardent Israeli supporters. Scenes of AIPAC supporters rising to their feet will be an effective recruiting tool for J Street members.

Bibi seems to be campaigning everywhere—in Paris marches and its Grand Synagogue. Two weeks before the Israeli elections, he is going to stand on the grand stage of the US House of Representatives and bash POTUS. The last place you will find Bibi campaigning is on the streets of his own country.

No American President with a sense of self-respect and dignity would meet with such a leader who is a guest in his county. American Jews did not vote the way Bibi wanted them to. And Obama is not running for anything anymore. He has nothing to lose. American Jews, however, do stand to lose stature and respect from their compatriots. And one could easily imagine that the next time Bibi needs the US to veto a UN Resolution or to block a move in the ICC, someone in the White House or the State Department will be tempted to say: “The Speaker’s number is 202 224-3121.”

By Michael Berenbaum

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