by Marsha B. Cohen
Hours before the U.S. federal government shutdown, members of the House and Senate from both parties were with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a reception honoring outgoing Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and Minority Leader Steny Hoyer spoke at the event, according to the Times of Israel. Others proudly gushed about their attendance to their constituents via e-mail. The office of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-F), Chair of the House Subcommittee, sent out the following message at 10:34 pm that night:
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, attended Ambassador Oren’s farewell event with Israel Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro and Miami Beach native, and incoming Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer. Ambassador Oren was honored by Members of Congress for his years of service to Israel and for his advancing of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Ros-Lehtinen did not mention that she and her Republican colleagues would be shutting down the U.S. government in less than an hour and a half.
Ron Dermer, Israel’s new Ambassador to the U.S., was also introduced to the attending members of Congress at the reception. I discussed the likelihood of Dermer’s new position as far back as December 2012 when I wrote that Oren, who has been Israel’s top envoy to the U.S. since 2009, would be replaced by the American-born neoconservative who helped plan Mitt Romney’s 2012 visit to Israel prior to the U.S. presidential election. Dermer is believed to have convinced Netanyahu that Romney was going to win the election; his appointment is clearly a thumb in Obama’s eye. Not only has Netanyahu appointed another fellow Likudnik as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., he has also appointed a strongly partisan Republican to the diplomatic post.
But Netanyahu isn’t worried about offending Obama. Despite the fulmination in his UN General Assembly speech on Monday about Israel standing alone against Iran, Bibi’s Gang remains on his side.
The Senate Foreign Affairs Committee (SFRC) also hosted its own event with Netanyahu on Sept. 30. Members were photographed with Oren and Netanyahu in a “class photo.” Netanyahu thanked them, according to Julian Pecquet of The Hill, “for their support of bills sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program, and urging them to continue to pressure the Islamic Republic.” Senators from both parties basked in Netanyahu’s praise and reciprocated it with their endorsement of what he had to say:
“Diplomacy without pressure is probably a futile exercise,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “He believes the sanctions are working, and I agree.” Graham said there’s consensus in the Senate to move ahead with a new round of sanctions, which the Senate Banking Committee is expected to take up shortly. The House passed similar legislation by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in July.
“During the meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, senators spoke with a unity of purpose, hopeful for a diplomatic outcome with Iran that leads to a verifiable termination of its pursuit of nuclear weapons program, but resolute that U.S. national security objectives can never be compromised,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the SFRC’s Chair, said in a statement following the meeting. “Our resolve to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability remains unchanged and we will not hesitate from proceeding with further sanctions and other options to protect U.S. interests and ensure regional security,” he said.
Graham and Menendez, two of the Senate’s most vociferous advocates of sanctions against Iran, jointly authored an op-ed in the Washington Post last week in which they declared, “In the coming days, we will be outspoken in our support for furthering sanctions against Iran, requiring countries to again reduce their purchases of Iranian petroleum and imposing further prohibitions on strategic sectors of the Iranian economy.”
(If only Graham and Menendez could apply their bipartisan resolve to convincing the hardliners in the House of Representatives to restore the functioning of the U.S. government.)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) the SFRC’s top Republican, said Netanyahu gave “very detailed” answers about his views at the meeting. “Like all of us, I don’t think he wants the negotiations to go on forever,” Corker said. He continued: “Obviously letting up on the sanctions is not something any us are interested in. And like all of us, he understands that if there is an agreement it needs to be a full agreement.” The senator declined to state whether Netanyahu requested that the Committee pass more sanctions: “I’m not going to answer that,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Senate Banking Committee, of which Corker is also a member, decided to delay the consideration of a new package of Iran sanctions until after the mid-month talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany). Reuters reports that the sanctions issue has been slowed by congressional wrangling over the government funding bill that has led to our government’s shutdown. Nonetheless, it occurred to members of the Committee that “deliberately delaying new sanctions” might improve the mood at the talks with Iran in Geneva later this month. Corker is quoted as saying, “There’s been some discussion about whether it’s best right now, while the negotiations are occurring, just to keep the existing ones in place.” Corker also reiterated that Congress remains deeply suspicious of Iran and supportive of tougher sanctions.
Right-wing news sites, and even some elements of the mainstream media, have been echoing the complaints of Tea Party members of the House who are responsible for the current government shutdown, asking why President Obama is so willing to talk to Iran but not to them. As satirist Jon Stewart of the Daily Show pointed out on Monday night, the “why Iran and not us?” talking point doesn’t exactly work in their favor:
You’re not helping yourselves. If it turns out that President Barack Obama can make a deal with the most intransigent, hardline, unreasonable, totalitarian mullahs in the world but not with Republicans, maybe he’s not the problem.
Part of the problem may be the willingness of members of both Houses, and both parties, to spend the hours before a government shutdown hobnobbing with a foreign leader — any foreign leader — and deferentially reveling in his advocacy of a foreign policy prescription that demeans, and seeks to undermine, the diplomatic efforts of their own president.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has his Revolutionary Guards to contend with; Obama’s got Bibi’s Gang in Congress. Which one will prove to be the bigger challenge?