by Jim Lobe
As Mitchell Plitnick pointed out on Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress on February 11, although now it appears that Bibi would like to put off the occasion until March 3, when AIPAC will be holding its annual policy conference and unleashing its 12,000-plus attendees on Capitol Hill. The lobby group presumably aims to persuade its members of Congress to do everything they can to sabotage a possible nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran—as well as bolster Bibi’s chances of retaining the premiership in the March 17 elections in Israel. Much has happened that is relevant to the visit imn the last 24 hours, and a brief round-up, which unfortunately is all that I have time for today, seems in order.
The invitation was clearly arranged without any notification of or coordination with the White House, which, as Mitchell reported, noted that its handling appeared to be “a departure from protocol.” It also appears now that Boehner didn’t even consult Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who, in addition to complaining about the negative impact Netanyahu’s appearance might have on the negotiations, explained on Thursday that the common practice is for the two leaders from each party to agree before issuing an invitation to a foreign leader:
…[I]t’s out of the ordinary that the Speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a Joint Session without any bipartisan consultation. And of course, we always—our friendship with Israel is a very strong one. Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken to the Joint Session two times already. And there are concerns about the fact that this—as I understand it from this morning—that this presentation will take place within two weeks of the election in Israel. I don’t think that’s appropriate for any country—that the head of state would come here within two weeks of his own election in his own country.
Meanwhile, the White House announced that Obama won’t meet Netanyahu for the same reason: “As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told reporters in an emailed statement. Kerry won’t meet with Bibi either, according to the State Department.
Meanwhile, Obama’s position that Congress should give diplomacy a chance by not enacting new sanctions legislation got a key endorsement from the presumed front-runner in the 2016 Democratic presidential race, Hillary Clinton. Speaking at a conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, she said:
If we’re the reason—through our Congress—that in effect gives Iran and others the excuse not to continue the negotiations, that would be, in my view, a very serious strategic error…Why do we want to be the catalyst for the collapse of negotiations until we really know whether there’s something we can get out of them that will make the world safer [and] avoid an arms race in the Middle East?…[R]ight now, the status quo that we’re in is in my view in our interests and therefore I don’t want to do anything that disrupts the status quo until we have a better idea as to whether there’s something we can get out of it.
Clinton’s position, of course, should be quite helpful in keep wavering Democrats in line. And, in the wake of Obama’s veto threat and Boehner’s invitation to Bibi, it seems that even some of the Democratic co-sponsors of the original Kirk-Menendez bill are moving in the White House’s direction. “I’m considering very seriously the very cogent points that he’s made in favor of delaying any congressional action,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal told Politico. “I’m talking to colleagues on both sides of the aisle. And I think they are thinking, and rethinking, their positions in light of the points that the president and his team are making to us.”
The fact that he would mention that some Republicans may also be “rethinking” their positions, while not provable yet, is significant, particularly in light of today’s Washington Post op-ed, “Give Diplomacy a Chance,” by the foreign ministers of France, Britain, and Germany and the high representative of the European Union (EU) for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, with whom Kerry met on Wednesday. The four of them could not have been clearer:
Maintaining pressure on Iran through our existing sanctions is essential. But introducing new hurdles at this critical stage of the negotiations, including through additional nuclear-related sanctions legislation on Iran, would jeopardize our efforts at a critical juncture. While many Iranians know how much they stand to gain by overcoming isolation and engaging with the world, there are also those in Tehran who oppose any nuclear deal. We should not give them new arguments. New sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far. Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back. [Emphasis added.]
It’s worth remembering that the writers of that statement include the foreign ministers of Washington’s three closest European and NATO allies—the countries (at least Britain and France) that Americans normally think of when a politician, including the Republican variety, talks about building closer ties with “our traditional allies.” Asked to choose between Israel and Washington’s western allies that, unlike Israel, have suffered real casualties alongside U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, some Republicans may not find it to so easy to follow AIPAC’s lead, despite rich campaign rewards dangled by the billionaire donors in the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), notably its chairman, Sheldon Adelson. So, when Boehner told Politico Thursday, “Let’s send a clear message to the White House — and the world — about our commitment to Israel and our allies,” he failed to clarify which “allies” he was referring to.
Of course, Europe is also Israel’s biggest trading partner by far, and European leaders and parliaments have been expressing increasing frustration over the past year with Netanyahu’s positions on Israel-Palestine as well as the general rightward drift of Israeli politics. In his last foreign venture, Netanyahu made himself thoroughly obnoxious in France. By being seen as actively trying to sabotage an agreement with Iran that, if it is indeed concluded, will gain the strong backing of the president of the United States and the leaders of Washington’s closest European allies, Netanyahu will isolate Israel even more from its western supporters.
That may be part of the reason why Israel’s national-security professionals have apparently been willing to go “rogue,” as Josh Rogin and Eli Lake called it in their big story Wednesday on Bloomberg about dissent in the Israeli intelligence community regarding the potentially disastrous impact of new sanctions legislation on the Iran negotiations. The intelligence community did this before when Netanyahu and Ehud Barak were repeatedly threatening to attack Iran earlier this decade. Although Mossad’s director issued an extremely unusual statement on Thursday denying any opposition to new sanctions, the phrasing indicated a certain lack of conviction.
Meanwhile, it will be very interesting to find out who initiated the idea that Netanyahu should be invited to address Congress at such a critical moment and to do so without any consultation with the State Department, the White House, or the minority leader in Congress. It’s hard to believe that either Boehner or McConnell would have the temperament or imagination to act on their own. One wonders whether Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer or someone at the RJC or Bill Kristol thought it was a great idea. Or maybe it was Bibi himself. Certainly the Emergency Committee for Israel welcomes the visit and plans to hold a reception for Bibi when he gets to Washington. Still, it’s hard to figure out how Israel’s relations with the United States or Europe are going to be improved by this.
AN ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: I think mainstream Jewish organizations that place a high stock in maintaining their bipartisan identity — including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, and even AIPAC — are going to have a difficult time dealing with this situation due to the fact that Boehner has acted in such a transparently partisan manner. It’s important to remember that both Kristol’s ECI and Adelson’s favorite Zionist group, the Zionist Organization of America, implicitly attacked AIPAC last February for essentially throwing in the towel on the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill precisely because the powerful lobby group had run into a solid wall of Democratic opposition and didn’t want to risk its bipartisan image. As Kristol said at the time, “[I]t would be terrible if history’s judgment on the pro-Israel community was that it made a fetish of bipartisanship — and got a nuclear Iran.” If Democrats line up strongly against Boehner’s and Bibi’s little coup, that same community is going to have to make some hard decisions.
Digitally altered photo of Benjamin Netanyahu pointing to a picture of John Boehner courtesy of @pdmastersnyu