With controversy growing over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to the U.S. Congress on March 3, just two weeks before Israel’s elections, some of his political allies seem to be looking for someone else to blame.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, suggested today that the prime minister had been “misled” into thinking that his invitation had bipartisan support in the U.S. "It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move, in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one sided move and not a move by both sides," he said in a radio interview.
This would be hard to believe about any world leader, but with Netanyahu it’s frankly ridiculous. Netanyahu—a close personal friend of a number of prominent U.S. politicians, the first world leader invited to address Congress three times since Winston Churchill, whose detractors jokingly refer to him as the “Republican senator from Israel”—is probably more plugged in to U.S. partisan politics than any head of government on earth.
Moreover, the American born and raised Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, the man so close to the prime minister he’s called “Bibi’s brain” and helped orchestrate the invitation with Boehner, got his start in politics working with pollster Frank Luntz on the 1994 Republican takeover. This is a group that understands American politics.
Dermer and Netanyahu must have known full well that arranging the visit with Boehner without informing the White House would make the Obama administration go ballistic. The cynical view of this is that Netanyahu is trying to boost his chances in the upcoming election, and appearing before Congress could boost his credentials as a global statesman. (Dermer was criticized last week for violating diplomatic protocol by endorsing Netanyahu’s reelection during a U.S. TV appearance.) The more charitable view is that Netanyahu sees the issue of Iran’s nuclear program as so serious that it’s worth flouting normal diplomatic etiquette.
Either way, they may not particularly mind the White House reaction, as Netanyahu has reportedly “written off” the president entirely and prefers dealing directly with Congress.
It is possible that Netanyahu, still basking in the bipartisan standing ovations of his 2011 speech, didn’t fully understand that pro-Israel Democrats would feel blindsided by his move or that some members of Congress might be so angered that they would actually skip the speech, as Rep. John Lewis and Congressional Black Caucus chairman G.K. Butterfield now say they will. But for now, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and most congressional Democrats are still planning to attend the speech, and as long as Republicans have a majority, Israel is likely to get its way on Iran sanctions votes.
In the long term, though, Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous game by helping to turn support for Israel into a partisan issue. The prime minister knew full well what he was doing, but he still may have miscalculated—and might end up surprised that the risk isn’t paying off.