Netanyahu in Washington: What Does it Mean for the Leader of a Foreign Country to Be a Republican?

Netanyahu Says He’s Not Trying to Make Israel a Partisan Issue in America. Too Late.

Netanyahu Says He’s Not Trying to Make Israel a Partisan Issue in America. Too Late.

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March 2 2015 12:52 PM

What Does it Mean for the Leader of a Foreign Country to Be a Republican?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves after speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2015 Policy Conference on March 2, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected charges that he is injecting partisanship into the U.S.-Israel relationship. “The last thing anyone who cares about Israel, the last thing that I would want, is for Israel to become a partisan issue, and I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that,” he said. “Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.

It’s a little late for that, Bibi. Tuesday, Netanyahu is giving what was billed from the moment it was announced as a rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address. Much of the controversy surrounding the visit has been over the perceived mutual snubbing and sniping between Netanyahu’s office and the White House and what it says about the relationship between the two leaders. (Nothing good.) But the bigger story is Netanyahu firmly aligning himself in the camp of one of America’s political parties to the exclusion of the other one—a strategy that could, in the long term, be extremely detrimental to Israel’s interests.

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Given the “very real difference” between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli leader’s decision to accept John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress made some tactical sense. Netanyahu believes Obama is on the verge of making a historically dangerous deal with Iran and doesn’t see any prospect for changing his mind. Given that his officials say he’s “written off” Obama and doesn’t see any chance of changing his mind, why not reach out to Congress, the “last brake” to stop the deal, diplomatic niceties be damned?

But even if he’s not particularly interested in what the White House thinks of him at this point, what’s harder to understand is the cold shoulder Netanyahu has given congressional Democrats, some of whom have been willing in the past to push back against the White House on the Iran issue. The most striking moment in this whole mess was not so much Netanyahu accepting Boehner’s invitation, though that could certainly have been handled more deftly. It was when Netanyahu declined a closed-door meeting with congressional Democrats. This would seem to have been a welcome opportunity for some fence-mending given that a number of prominent members of Congress, including the most senior senator, Patrick Leahy, and a number of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are skipping his speech over the perceived insult to Obama. Instead, Netanyahu dug in deeper, making the long-standing joke about Netanyahu being the “Republican senator” from Israel seeming not really like a joke anymore.

It’s one of the necessary hypocrisies of diplomacy between democracies that governments have to pretend they don’t have a stake in each other’s domestic politics. Sometimes they don’t do a particularly good job of selling the fiction. Other European governments clearly hoped Greek voters would elect someone other than the left-wing Syriza party during last month’s election, for instance. Obama was, himself, the beneficiary of several de facto endorsements from European leaders in 2008. The U.S.-Israel relationship hasn’t been immune from this kind of gamesmanship either: George H.W. Bush fairly transparently attempted to tip the scales in favor of Yitzhak Rabin over Yitzhak Shamir in 1991, and Bill Clinton tried unsuccessfully to do the same for Shimon Peres over Netanyahu in 1996.

What is unprecedented is the extent to which Netanyahu has firmly allied himself with one American party over another—not just during an election but in the making of policy. At this point, U.S. domestic politics are probably a better lens for analyzing Netanyahu’s actions than foreign policy: He’s interacting with the White House less in the manner of François Hollande or David Cameron than in that of Mitch McConnell or John Boehner.

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Pragmatism would seem to argue against this approach: Foreign leaders don’t have much influence over other countries’ voters, and they’re going to have to deal with whoever is in power. Angela Merkel clearly didn’t want François Hollande to be elected and backed his opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, to an unusual extent in 2012. But while the two clearly aren’t overly fond of each other, they’ve found ways to work together. Narendra Modi wasn’t even allowed to enter the United States until a few months ago, but the U.S.-India relationship has actually improved since he came into office. Margaret Thatcher may have been ideologically simpatico with Ronald Reagan’s Republicans, but she got along decently with Jimmy Carter as well.

But Netanyahu, who appointed a former GOP pollster as his ambassador to Washington, is taking a different, and historically unusual, approach—essentially aligning Israel’s interests with the fortunes of one American political party. 

Even the right-leaning, pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC seems baffled by this approach, with one official telling the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last week, “[Ambassador Ron] Dermer and Netanyahu don’t believe that Democrats are capable of being pro-Israel, which is crazy for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons is that most Jews are Democrats.”

Indeed, it is bizarre with for the leader of a country with a stake in U.S. political debates to write off one of America’s political parties, and even stranger for the leader of Israel to write off the party that 70 percent of American Jews support. With polls showing younger and more secular American Jews less attached to Israel than their parents, we’re quickly drifting toward a place where Orthodox Jews, who tend to lean further to the right, and the Christian right, replace the broader American Jewish community as Israel’s most enthusiastic U.S. supporters. That cannot be good for Israel.