House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress on Iran is an unprecedented rebuke of President Barack Obama as he and Congress are preparing for a battle over Iran sanctions, experts told TPM.
The move came the day after Obama threatened in his State of the Union address to veto legislation putting new sanctions on Iran. He warned that new sanctions by Congress would disrupt the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) acknowledged the week before that ending negotiations “is very much an intended consequence” of a new sanctions bill that has been put forward with some Democratic support.
Although the US and Israel maintain a “special relationship,” the discord between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government has been well documented. Netanyahu welcomed 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a visit Israel in the midst of the campaign. And anonymous Obama administration officials have been quoted calling the Israeli prime minster “a chickenshit.”
But even with that context, experts on American-Israeli relations expressed shock that Boehner had invited Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran next month. One described it as an effort to “humiliate” and “embarrass” Obama as the two sides dig in over Iran. The invitation from the Ohio Republican positions Congress, rather than the White House, as Israel’s ally.
“It’s unprecedented. It’s hitting below the belt. It’s taking partisanship to a whole new level,” Guy Ziv, a professor at American University who has studied U.S.-Israeli relations, told TPM. “It is a way for them to embarrass and humiliate the Obama administration.”
It does track, though, with a broader trend of Israel becoming an area of partisan divide in a way that it hasn’t always been.
“My reaction was that ‘Wow, Boehner really wanted to bigfoot President Obama’s State of the Union address,” Matt Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which advocates for a two-state solution, told TPM. “It’s part of a pattern we’ve seen, taking the Israel issue and using it as a partisan wedge.”
Foreign leaders, including Netanyahu, have addressed joint sessions of Congress before. But the transparently political element of having Netanyahu, who has been a forceful critic at times of the international negotiations with Iran, speak on this specific topic and at this particular time makes the invitation from Boehner distinct from those past examples.
“It has a symbolic meaning that is not very positive in the long run,” Yoram Peri, who served as senior adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and is now a professor at the University of Maryland, told TPM, “because we know there is a major difference of opinion between the House and the president.”
Netanyahu’s forays into American politics have a long history; he would sometimes align himself with the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Congress in the 1990s. But the Boehner invite still struck those familiar with the issue as wholly different given its political symbolism. The White House even called it a breach of protocol, according to the Associated Press.
“It’s moving behind-closed-doors politics into the public arena,” Peri said.
Or as Ziv put it: “They’ve taken it to a whole different level.”
Others, however, argued that while there was certainly a political element to Wednesday’s theatrics, it is important to remember that Republicans and the Israeli government do have substantive policy differences with Obama on the Iranian question — even if personal acrimony might be adding to these public disputes.
“This seems to have become very public and very personal. That kind of nastiness adds an edge to it,” Jonathan Rynhold, a politics professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, told TPM. “But it also shouldn’t be dismissed as politically maneuvering. There’s a very, very serious foreign policy issue at stake. There’s a really genuine disagreement.”
Netanyahu’s visit would also come about a month before Israeli’s March 17 elections, and he has received substantial contributions from Americans, as BuzzFeed reported earlier this month. But as TPM’s Josh Marshall noted, there is some evidence that his perch as prime minster might be precarious as voters head to the polls.
Congress’ embrace of Netanyahu therefore allows him to assume the role of international statesman and play to some internal Israeli skepticism about the Obama administration’s stance toward Iran, the Palestinian peace process and other Middle East issues.
“The one thing that the opposition can play is, ‘Look, you’re screwing up relations with the United States.’ But if Netanyahu’s invited, then that’s moot,” Rynhold said. “It’s a good time, it’s a good issue. It works politically because it’s founded on what these people actually think.”
Ziv even suggested that Republicans were rewarding Netanyahu for his tacit support of Romney in 2012. It will undoubtedly play well with a substantial part of the Israeli electorate.
“This will really demonstrate that the other candidates are not as his level,” Ziv said. “Who else has close friends in Congress? This shows gravitas.”