A Step Too Far

In this photo provided by Columbia Law School, Michael B. Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, delivers an address at Columbia Law School in New York. Oren, invited to speak as a guest of the Center for Isr... In this photo provided by Columbia Law School, Michael B. Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, delivers an address at Columbia Law School in New York. Oren, invited to speak as a guest of the Center for Israeli Legal Studies, described Israel's long-standing, close relationship with the United States. (AP Photo/Columbia Law School, Chris Taggart) MORE LESS
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There seems to be a growing backlash to the Netanyahu-Boehner speech stunt, both in the United States and Israel. As you can see from our current feature story, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has said the speech threatens a rift with the US and should be canceled. I want to say more about Oren’s remarks and their context. But before getting to that, a few other developments.

There is a must-read column by Chemi Shalev in Haaretz which you can read in English. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) gave a statement to Haaretz roundly trashing Netanyahu’s visit – both for the breach of diplomatic protocol and for the substance of what Netanyahu is trying to do: blow up US diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement with Iran.

“Inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu without consulting the administration is clearly a breach of protocol and an unwelcome injection of partisan politics into our foreign policy. It puts the United States in the middle of Israel’s election, which is highly inappropriate … I also believe imposing additional sanctions on Iran in the midst of negotiations — which is what Netanyahu will reportedly discuss — would collapse the negotiations and ruin a historic diplomatic opportunity. Imposing sanctions now is reckless and dangerous.”

Feinstein’s willingness to speak so aggressively is a good measure of the damage caused by Netanyahu’s actions. But just as notable in Shalev’s reporting is that the speech debacle appears to be weakening Democratic support for the Menendez-Kirk bill to push forward a new round of sanctions on Iran – the bill President Obama has promised to veto. At least in the context of US politics and politicking around Iran, Netanyahu’s move appears to be backfiring.

If that holds up, it’s an astounding development. It means Netanyahu’s norm-breaking behavior and decision to subordinate Israel-US ties to his reelection campaign have managed to overcome – at least in certain cases – Democratic senators’ usual unwillingness to get outflanked to the right on security issues tied to Israel. The level of affront is almost unprecedented: we now know that Israeli Ambassador Dermer – a primary architect of the effort to align Israel around the GOP and himself a former Republican political operative – met with Secretary Kerry for several hours the day before the Netanyahu speech was announced and never mentioned it to Kerry. In almost any other case, such bad faith and duplicity would lead a host country to ask that an ambassador be withdrawn.

The Israeli press is also reporting more and more examples of the negative reaction to Netanyahu’s move in the US. Most Israeli dailies have items reporting the fact that even Fox News has trashed the visit, with Chris Wallace calling the move “wicked.” Even Fox News, etc.

In short, the whole trip is seeming like a net liability for Netanyahu, not the coup it was treated as just after it was announced. And we still have six weeks before the speech. So there’s plenty of time for the news to marinate in the stew of the lead-up to the Israeli election in mid-March.

But let’s go back to Michael Oren.

Let’s start by noting that Oren is not just any former Israeli Ambassador the US. He was Netanyahu’s appointee to the job who served from 2009 to 2013. He was the Israeli government’s chief advocate in the US and Netanyahu’s less than two years ago. You’ll remember I discussed Oren in my post from late December looking at hints and defections that might signal Netanyahu’s political demise. So let’s return to that. Because it’s key to understanding the import of what Oren said.

Oren, as I said, is a former Ambassador to the US. He’s also an historian of some note. Last month he announced that he was joining and running on the Knesset list of the new Kulanu party, which was just founded by former Likud MK Moshe Kahlon. So far Kulanu has not been performing quite as well as some expected in the polls. And to the extent Kahlon’s revealed his politics, he’s focused on cost-of-living and economic issues. But in announcing his decision to join the party (and by doing so, break with Netanyahu), Oren focused squarely on Israel’s mounting diplomatic isolation and the central role of the Israel-US alliance. From his statement announcing his decision

“We must take our fate in our hands. I understand how critical our relationship with the United States is. It has enormous, almost existential, significance for us and we cannot lose that. There is no replacement for the U.S. as Israel’s most important ally. The U.S. is not just the source of aid for our security,such as Iron Dome, the U.S. is our partner when it comes to democratic principles and the willingness to protect our freedom. Today, more than ever, it is clear to everyone that Israel-U.S. relations are the foundation of any economic, security and diplomatic approach. It is our responsibility to strengthen those ties immediately.”

Now, we should take as a given that Oren’s comments are inherently political. He is after all running against Netanyahu’s government. But he speaks with a unique weight and credibility on this issue. He is seen in Israel as someone with a keen understanding of Israel’s diplomatic position and even more someone with a keen understanding of the United States. He was not only Ambassador. He was also born in the United States. (He emigrated to Israel in 1979 – when he was 24 years old.)

Here’s the key part of the remarks from yesterday.

“The behavior over the last few days created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran. It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”

The point is pretty clear: Netanyahu is too reckless to safeguard the Israel-US alliance. He hits all the key points, the mix of recklessness and placing political opportunism above the national interest.

In the present circumstances, Israeli public opinion on US politics and the Israel-US alliance are complex, to put it mildly. Obama is not terribly popular. But the underlying knowledge that the US alliance is an existential imperative is well understood across most of the political spectrum. Threats to it stir a anxiety in the Israeli national psyche. Oren is definitely going there.

Now, I don’t have a sense yet precisely how this all plays in an electoral context. There are a multitude of issues on the table in this election. And there are so many parties in an Israeli election that it’s very hard to make anything remotely like the kind of zero sum analysis that the US two party system makes possible. But Netanyahu is very much on the ballot, in addition to the more literal competition between the dozen or so parties. And whether Netanyahu’s kick-the-can-down-the-road policies, amidst deepening international isolation, are working is a key question. The central point of the December post I referred to above was that key figures in the center-right of Israeli politics were placing their electoral chips on the argument that Netanyahu’s policies, far from providing security, were leading the country toward the abyss.

One thing to keep an eye on is how much and how successfully players in the US and Israel can keep this controversy roiling over the next six and eight weeks. We should take it as a given that President Obama and his advisors would like nothing better than to see this speech debacle become a defining issue in the election which sinks Netanyahu for good. And there are myriad things they can do to provoke and exacerbate the tensions surrounding it. But to be seen too clearly to be doing so could easily backfire in both countries. Doing so effectively would require immense deftness. (The same of course applies to every electoral player outside the Likud in Israel – just with less deftness required.) From what’s shaken out over the last few days it does not seem to be a winning issue for Netanyahu, though whether it’s damaging is not clear. But it is a controversy with moving parts in Israel and the US, and thus one that will be challenging for Netanyahu to manage as he might (and often does deftly) a controversy entirely contained within Israel. Saying the speech should be canceled, in essence because it endangers Israel’s vital interests, throws down the gauntlet in a very big way. The next question is whether that question, that framing, becomes an issue in the election in its own right.

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