by Mitchell Plitnick
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, U.S. President Barack Obama stated once again, and quite firmly, that he would veto any new sanctions bill against Iran. Apparently, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner was not going to take that lying down.
Less than twelve hours after Obama finished his speech, Boehner announced that he has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on February 11. White House Spokesman Josh Earnest expressed President Obama’s displeasure at the invitation, of which the White House was not informed until Boehner’s announcement. Earnest called it a “departure from protocol” whereby the two leaders normally coordinate such visits. The soft words are thin cover for what is surely white-hot anger in the White House.
As Boehner’s announcement itself made clear, there can be little doubt that the speaker’s move was intended to undercut Obama. The fact that Netanyahu’s office also did not communicate with the White House before the invitation was issued will likely further strain the relationship between the two leaders. Although Netanyahu has not, as of this writing, said whether or not he will accept the invitation, it will be difficult for him to pass it up. This appearance will be one to which every U.S. citizen concerned with our foreign policy will need to pay close attention. It will be nothing less than the prime minister of Israel rallying his faithful troops in Congress to oppose the president of the United States.
Before getting into the obvious partisan and Israel-related politics around this, we should take note of the fact that this appearance before Congress, if it materializes, will take place just over a month before the Israeli elections. Netanyahu is facing a pretty stiff challenge from the “Zionist Camp” ticket, a coalition formed by the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Ha’Tnuah party. One of their talking points—though certainly not the central one—will be that Netanyahu has bungled the relationship with the United States on which Israel depends so much.
The spectacle that will surely be seen again—that of Netanyahu hardly being able to speak a sentence without yet another new standing ovation by virtually every one of Congress’ 535 members—will hit that point hard. Bibi’s talking point will be to ask, “What does it matter if we don’t get along so well with an administration that will be gone in two years? We have Congress lock, stock, and barrel.” And that will play very well in Israel.
Boehner and his Republican colleagues very much want Netanyahu to win re-election. It is no coincidence that this invitation comes at the perfect moment for Netanyahu. It is not so far from the election that it will fade from memory, but not so close as to make it seem as if he is prioritizing international matters over domestic Israeli concerns.
This episode should be kept in mind when we hear that the United States and the international community must postpone diplomacy around the Israel-Palestine conflict to avoid “interfering with the Israeli elections.” In reality, it is perfectly acceptable to interfere in Israel’s elections, as long as that interference favors Netanyahu.
But this is not at all meant to imply that the Israeli election is the reason for Boehner’s invitation. On the contrary, it is, for Boehner, merely a happy side effect. For both men, the primary reason for this appearance is to bring the full weight of Israel’s influence in Congress to bear against the president of the United States. The goal is to consolidate enough support in Congress to override the veto Obama promised against any new Iran sanctions bill.
Netanyahu will surely seize this opportunity to garner support for more sanctions whose impact, as Obama—backed, incidentally, by British Prime Minister David Cameron in their joint press conference—warned last week, would likely lead to the collapse of diplomacy.
Congress should be aware that if this diplomatic solution fails, then the risks and likelihood that this ends up being at some point a military confrontation is heightened, and Congress will have to own that as well, and that will have to be debated by the American people. And we may not be able to rebuild the kind of coalition we need in that context if the world believes that we were not serious about negotiations.
While Obama didn’t go quite as far during his address last night repeated that “…new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails—alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”
Obama’s opponents, in Washington and Jerusalem, are quite right, in their own terms, about the deal Obama is trying to strike with Iran. That deal would surely feature a phased end to sanctions in exchange for verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program but it would also permit Iran to retain some of its nuclear infrastructure, including a uranium enrichment program. That is the very definition of what Netanyahu, as well as hawks in the United States from both parties, would call a “bad deal.” On top of that, there is a desire for regime change in Iran among neoconservative forces in the United States. That desire is shared by Netanyahu and many in Israel. The goal is a long way off, so it is rarely mentioned, but lowering tensions through diplomacy—let alone a detente between Washington and Tehran—is certainly not the way to get there.
So, here comes Bibi, marching up Capitol Hill. He certainly will have a chance to rally enough support in the Senate to override the President’s veto. It won’t be easy; many of the more hawkish Democrats from last year’s attempt to pass new sanctions backed down when the heat got turned up, and a number of them lost their seats in November. Moreover, Boehner’s unilateral action—apparently without consulting anyone from the Minority—will not endear him to wavering Democrats.
But Netanyahu could have some extra ammunition in his corner. Tensions between Israel and Iran are escalating in the wake of an Israeli attack in the Golan Heights region of Syria last weekend that killed an Iranian general, along with several members of Hezbollah, including Jihad Mughniyeh, whose father was a major Hezbollah figure also killed by Israel. Iran and Hezbollah have both sworn retaliation, though nothing has come of it yet and they both have their hands full with the war in Syria. Nonetheless, the incident reinforces the view of Iran as a major regional threat and serves as a reminder of the support Iran is giving to Bashar al-Assad.
Moreover, the recent “suicide” of an Argentine prosecutor before he was to testify about the results of his investigation into the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires could also strengthen Netanyahu’s hand against Obama. The prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy between the current Argentine government and Iran to whitewash the Islamic Republic’s alleged role in the deadly attack which claimed 85 lives. Few believe that Nisman took his own life the night before giving such potentially explosive testimony.
The question of who might have coerced Nisman into taking his own life, or perhaps staged his suicide, is likely to remain an open one for a long time. The prime suspect would surely be the current Argentine leadership, but the incident will serve as a reminder of the well-worn charge that Iran is the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism and the accused sponsor of the worst attack on Jews in Argentina’s very problematic history.
It would be no easy feat to get thirteen Democrats (the number that would be required assuming all 54 Senate Republicans are on board) to vote to override a veto cast by a Democratic president. But it’s not an impossible figure, and a lot of circumstances seem to be coming together to intensify the already hostile attitude that prevails on Capitol Hill.
Bibi is the big gun, and, if Boehner has his way, he’ll be be deployed in three weeks. If we want to prevent a collapse in the talks with Iran, and the very strong likelihood that war will soon follow, there has never been a more crucial time to support Obama.