by Jim Lobe
The Bibi-Boehner fiasco appears to be the gift that keeps on giving. At least, it continues to buoy the hopes of those who want the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators to forge a framework accord by the notional deadline of March 24 to be followed by a comprehensive deal on Tehran’s nuclear program by July 1.
John Boehner’s (R-OH) unilateral invitation has served above all to persuade some nervous Democrats to rally behind Obama and his promise to veto any sanctions legislation during the ongoing negotiations. Indeed, until Boehner’s surprise announcement— which, incidentally, was extended (apparently falsely) “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate” (emphasis added and see this Reuters piece published today)— Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had a shot at peeling off enough Democrats to get a sanctions bill through the Senate even before March.
But, as widely predicted, the invitation made it clearer than ever that Boehner’s—and Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY)—stunt was fundamentally a partisan maneuver designed to embarrass and undermine the president. This point was underlined by the praise it immediately elicited from the Sheldon Adelson-chaired Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and the boast a few hours later by Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI)—a Republican operation through and through—that it would host a reception for Netanyahu after his address to Congress.
“It is our impression that these people’s support for the speech stems from their identification with, and admiration for, a move to defy and humiliate President Obama, more than from the importance they attribute to the Iranian issue, which should be the center of the speech,” noted Yaron Seidman, Israel’s consul general in Philadelphia, in a cable to his superiors in the Foreign Ministry, according to an account in Haaretz. Seidman, who previously served as the Israeli embassy’s main liaison to Congress, was referring specifically to the RJC, the ultra-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and various Christian Zionist evangelical figures, Haaretz reported.
Nor was Seidman the only Israeli consular official who suggested that the invitation and Bibi’s snap acceptance were causing problems. Haaretz quoted an unnamed ministry official as saying that the consuls general based in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles had voiced similar concerns. “The recurrent message in all the consuls’ reports is that Israel’s friends in the United States think Netanyahu’s speech in Congress is a bad mistake and could harm U.S.-Israel relations,” the official told Haaretz. Israel’s ambassador to Switzerland was reportedly recalled for retweeting comments by Israeli journalists that were critical of Netanyahu’s maneuver.
As you have probably read elsewhere, the affair has also resulted in considerable uncertainty as to who, besides Republicans, will show up for Bibi’s address if it indeed takes place. The vice president, who normally loves affairs like these, seems likely to avoid this one due to questions about scheduling, while Democrats are actively debating whether or not to attend.
As noted by the Associated Press Thursday afternoon, at least three have announced they will indeed boycott: Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who called the affair “a reckless act of political grandstanding;” Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who said the invitation was “an affront to the president and the State Department;” and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), who also serves as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The fact that Butterfield and Lewis will boycott is particularly remarkable given the CBC’s historically close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has long made its courtship of black political leaders a major priority.
Dozens of Democrats are reportedly considering staying away. They’ve also taken other steps to demonstrate their disapproval, such as issuing an appeal to delay Netanyahu’s appearance until after the March 17 Israeli elections that will decide whether Bibi holds on to his premiership.
The Israeli Embassy, headed by former Florida-born Republican activist and “Bibi’s Brain,” Amb. Ron Dermer, has reportedly been trying hard to undo the damage with Democrats, but apparently with little or no success, according to various reports published by Politico. (See, for example, here and here.)
Although the RJC, ECI, and ZOA have all enthusiastically supported the invitation and Netanyahu’s acceptance, mainstream Jewish organizations have, as I suggested when the invitation was first announced, kept a low profile. The leadership of these organizations may lean right, especially with respect to Israel, but the vast majority of American Jews vote Democratic and are certainly far more liberal in their worldview than either John Boehner or Bibi Netanyahu. Referring to the possible “terrible consequences” of Netanyahu’s show of contempt for a U.S. president in a critical commentary (“The Netanyahu Disaster”) by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic last week, The Forward headlined its most recent editorial “Bibi’s Bad Choice:”
[O]ne of those consequences incurred by the “Republican Senator from Israel” — that’s what some call Netanyahu now — is the damage done to the Israeli government’s relationship with the majority of American Jews. Netanyahu may be appeasing his funders, his Congressional allies and his friends in Jewish communal leadership with his upcoming speech. But he risks alienating many more American Jews whose support he may no longer take for granted.
This no doubt is what has concerned the Israeli consuls general.
Meanwhile, the liberal Zionist group, J Street, has compiled a list of many of the critical comments that the “Netanyahu Disaster,” as Goldberg called it, has elicited from members of Congress, prominent Israelis, as well as several U.S. Jewish leaders and organizations. It’s in alphabetical order for each category.
Statements by Key Figures on Netanyahu Congressional Address
Members of Congress:
Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) – “I remain hopeful that his address would be delayed until after their election.”
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) – “We have a strong relationship, a strong alliance with Israel. For the speaker to decide to go at it alone and to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu without consulting with the White House was a mistake.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) – Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California says that inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress during an Israeli election period is “highly inappropriate” and that imposing new sanctions on Iran at this time is “reckless and dangerous.”
Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) – “It is not the norm to do this right before an election and it is being widely reported in the Israeli press as the U.S. expressing some kind of a preference.”
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) – “It didn’t show a lot of class. If it had been George W. Bush or Reagan or Clinton or whoever, protocol is protocol.”
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) – “I’m sick about the fact that protocol has been violated, but you know, I’m always eager to hear what he has to say.”
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) – “This was not the right thing to do.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) – “For the sake of diplomacy, peace, and respect for our ally Israel, to say nothing of stability in the Middle East, Speaker Boehner must cancel the joint session of Congress with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. If he does not, I will refuse to be part of a reckless act of political grandstanding.”
Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Keith Ellison (D-MN) sign-on letter – “We strongly urge you to postpone this invitation until Israelis have cast their ballots and the deadline for diplomatic negotiations with Iran has passed. When the Israeli prime minister visits us outside the specter of partisan politics, we will be delighted and honored to greet him or her on the Floor of the House.”
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) – Ranking Member on the House of Representatives Middle East subcommittee, accused the speaker of “political gamesmanship.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) – “Moreover, the timing and context of the speech smacks of political opportunism: an attempt to undermine the President in the middle of delicate nuclear negotiations with Iran, while inappropriately projecting political support for Mr. Netanyahu in the middle of Israel’s election.”
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) – “Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, deserves our continued bipartisan support and the prime minister is always welcome. Moving forward, the speaker must improve his coordination with the president and minority leader.”
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) – “It’s a campaign stunt, and I’m not working for his campaign. I’m not a standing stooge. What will be remembered here is the slight against our president and the partisan political nature of it, and I don’t know who’s served by that.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) – “True friends of Israel understand that bi-partisan support — going back to Harry Truman — has been essential for the safety of Israel and to the success of the US-Israel strategic partnership. And particularly given the fact that Israel is currently facing its most serious threats from all sides, by terrorists and terrorist states alike, that bi-partisan consensus is more important than ever. It would be very wise for both parties to this invitation to consider measures to mitigate the damage this political maneuvering has inflicted.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – “It’s a serious big honor that we extend. That it should be extended two weeks before an election in a country without collaboration among the leaders of Congress, and without collaboration with the White House, is not appropriate.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) – “I think for us to extend an invitation two weeks before the Israeli election gives Israelis the impression we’re trying to meddle in their politics and I also find it extraordinary that a world leader would be invited before the Congress effectively to lobby in favor of a bill that the president opposes.”
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) – “It was not what would have occurred if the legislative branch and the executive branch worked better together in general and on foreign policy in particular. Those of us in the pro-Israel community don’t want to see Israel be a partisan football.”
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) – “I am totally outraged at Speaker Boehner for doing it, I think it’s, it was deliberately designed to undermine the president — that’s close to subversion.”
Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad – “Netanyahu’s position will not change the West’s position on the Iranian issue, but his actions bring our relationship with the Americans to an extreme point and this might extract an unbearable price from us in the future.”
MK Zehava Galon – “The State Comptroller should launch an investigation to determine if PM Netanyahu is using the Israeli embassy in Washington to promote his political and partisan interests. This suspicion arises due to the reports about the contact the embassy had with sources in the congress behind the government’s back in order to promote Netanyahu’s congressional speech two weeks before the elections in Israel.”
MK Yair Lapid – “The conduct around Netanyahu’s congressional speech goes against protocol, and against the rules of courtesy. We have to remember: The White House is the institution that we conduct our daily relationship with, according to American law, the president is the high commander of the army, the White House is managing the negotiations with Iran. The strategic relationship with the US is important to the security of Israel, It will take time to mend the damage. Netanyahu has deep knowledge about our relationship with the US, he knows the protocol and he knows the international arena – if he decided to compromise all of that just to give a speech in congress, it is only for one reason: because he thinks it will help him in the Israeli elections, even at the cost of damaging our relationship with the US.”
MK Tzipi Livni, Hatnuah chairwoman – “Netanyahu is compromising our relationship with the United States and therefore he is compromising Israel’s security and jeopardising the lives of its soldiers, and for what? For politics. We – Hertzog and I – will work with the US president – no matter who he is – and take care of Israel’s most important interests. Two weeks before the election he is flying to Washington – he should stay in Israel and speak in Hebrew to the citizens of this country instead of arranging a congressional speech for himself so he can speak in English and get a standing ovation – let him try get a standing ovation here.”
Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. – “It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government.”
MK Shelly Yachimovich – “It’s a very brutal and unacceptable bypass of the president of the United States and something like that simply damages [Israel].”
Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, former intelligence chief – “When we manage our relationship with the US, we have to manage it simultaneously with the president and Congress. The prime minister has made it into a partisan issue in the US, and we cannot let Israel become a problem for one party or the other.”
MK Ofer Shelach – “Democratic delegates that want to support more sanctions on Iran won’t support it now, because they feel that Netanyahu is pushing their president to the corner, they have to stand behind him”.
American Jewish Community Leaders & Groups:
Abe Foxman, Anti-Defamation League – “This looks like a political challenge to the White House and/or a campaign effort in Israel.”
Debra DeLee, Americans for Peace Now President and CEO – “Both the timing of the invitation and its manner are outrageous. They are inappropriate and irresponsible. Not only were the invitations issued in a way that violates protocol, their timing suggests congressional meddling in a foreign country’s election campaign – two weeks only before Israel’s general elections, in which Benjamin Netanyahu is a candidate. Furthermore, the timing strongly suggests an attempt to use a foreign leader to influence the debate between Congress and the White House over America’s Iran policy. To top it all, this move uses Israel, yet again, as a wedge issue in internal American politics. Speaker Boehner’s invitation – both its timing and manner – is therefore a disservice to US national security interests and to Israel’s.”
Israel Policy Forum – “Now that consideration of new sanctions legislation will be postponed until after the March 24 interim deadline for the P5+1 negotiations, Netanyahu’s scheduled address is of questionable purpose. It will not have a demonstrable impact on U.S. legislation, or strengthen American resolve to pressure Iran in negotiations. It is more likely to have the counterproductive effect of highlighting and intensifying disagreements between Democrats and Republicans and between the Israeli and American governments.”
J Street – “Mr. Netanyahu is not only head of the Israeli government — he is also a candidate in the midst of a highly-contested election campaign. His invitation, rightly or wrongly, will inevitably be interpreted in Israel and elsewhere as an attempt by an outside actor to interfere in the Israeli election. We would urge Mr. Boehner to postpone the invitation until after the election and then to invite whoever is elected Prime Minister, who will enjoy a fresh mandate from his or her people to address the Congress. The timing is also troubling because of what may be a looming battle over Iran sanctions legislation that President Obama has vowed to veto should it reach his desk. Again, the intention may be pure, but the appearance is just as important as the intent. This will inevitably appear to many to be an attempt by a Republican standard-bearer to enlist the support of a foreign leader in a battle to gather votes to overturn a presidential veto.”