As you can see from our feature article, today came news – coming just hours after the President’s State of the Union address – that John Boehner and Congressional Republicans have been negotiating a massive in-kind political donation to the reelection campaign of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s a gambit so bold and ingenious in its flouting of diplomatic protocol, interstate relations and political norms that it almost makes you think President Obama shouldn’t have accepted a former Republican political operative tied to the Romney campaign (Ron Dermer) as Israel’s current Ambassador to the United States. But with all that, let’s dig into the transaction itself.
As we’ve been discussing in a series of posts, there’s a big election in Israel in mid-March. Though Netanyahu’s Likud is running behind Labor/’The Zionist Camp’, things are still probably 50-50 that Netanyahu maintains his hold on the Prime Ministership because the likely outcome of the election will leave easier makings of a right-wing government than one of the center-left. And in practice – despite greatly diminished personal support and popularity – there’s simply no one besides Netanyahu realistically able to assemble such a coalition.
Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer
I spoke to a friend yesterday who is deeply wired into Israeli politics who put the odds at 60/40 in Netanyahu’s favor (more bullish for Netanyahu than I would put it; but then he knows more) but definitely trending in Labor/Livni’s direction. Netanyahu is relying on two things to win himself another term.
First is focusing the national conversation away from cost of living/domestic policy issues and international isolation and toward hard national security concerns – his natural turf.
Second is the public’s perception of him as the Prime Minister – and playing to that deep-seated strength. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts on this election, no one has so totally or for so long dominated the Israeli political landscape since Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu has never been loved by the Israeli public. Quite the contrary, actually. But his reputation as a leader is great. There have been a number of polls in recent weeks that show that, while Netanyahu’s personal popularity and the support for his policies are low and slipping, most Israelis nevertheless see him as the more natural Prime Minister. They may not like him and they may not support him. But when Israelis look at Netanyahu and the most likely alternative, Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog, they just see Netanyahu as the more natural leader of the country – even if fewer and fewer like where he’s leading it.
That’s what makes this speech such a gift from Netanyahu’s Republican allies. (Note to say men on both sides of the transaction are major, major beneficiaries of the financial largesse of Sheldon Adelson. He even set up a massive free paper in Israel basically to support Netanyahu.) He gets to come to the US, play important international leade,r and talk about all the terrible dangers in the world from ISIS to al Qaida to Paris to anti-Semitism and Iran’s nuclear weapons program – all bundled up into one big jihadi nuclear holocaust mushroom cloud of awful.
Fear, fear, fear.
It’s all he’s got. And it’s a lot.
Labor Party Leader, Isaac Herzog
Already in the Israeli press, the speech is being portrayed as a big, big blow to Naftali Bennett (to Netanyahu’s right), to Herzog (to his left) and to Obama, his nemesis in the United States for all the reasons I mentioned above. This article gives a good flavor of the furtive planning between Boehner and Ambassador Dermer to pull the speech together over the last two weeks. Note that Dermer is already under fire for openly campaigning on Netanyahu’s behalf while serving as Ambassador though he is supposed to be acting in his capacity as a civil servant. (On one hand this breach is hardly surprising. Dermer is one of the Netanyahu’s top political advisors. His relationship with Netanyahu has been compared to Karl Rove’s with George W. Bush. And a main reason for his being Ambassador is his ties to DC Republicans. So it’s all known and by design. But it’s gotten a bit too open and transparent in the lead up to this new election.)
But set the Israeli politics part of this aside. What really brings this stunt all together is what congressional Republicans get from Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s job from Boehner’s and congressional Republicans’ point of view is to sabotage the President’s (and the other world powers’) ongoing negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu – who, remember, is not an American, not the Senator from Jerusalem – gets the role of chief spokesman against the President’s Iran policy, speaking from the well of the House chamber. If possible, he manages to blow the whole thing up and even get the US embroiled in a war with Iran. Why not shoot for the stars?
(Here’s another interesting thread: Mossad has broken with Netanyahu and is telling US officials that the sanctions bill Boehner, Netanyahu and many other Republicans want would be terrible for both countries.)
So what does everyone else do?
Here are two things to watch out for. It’s a bit hard to peel away the spin and figure out what’s real. But it’s not clear that Netanyahu’s very high profile spin through Paris helped him politically back home. Some say it hurt him. The polls at least do not suggest it helped him. And one very big part of the equation in terms of Netanyahu’s political struggles is a rising anxiety among Israelis about the frayed relationship with the United States. President Obama is not terribly popular in Israel. But it is still understood across broad swaths of Israeli society that the solidity of the US alliance is an existential issue for Israel. Whatever the substance of the disagreement it’s a central job of any Israeli Prime Minister to keep that relationship solid. And while security cooperation is perhaps better than it has ever been between the two countries, diplomatic relations have been icy at best.
Speaking to Congress will burnish Netanyahu’s leadership and international credentials from one perspective. But it is hard to see how the visit will not also spotlight the US-Israel relationship under Netanyahu as one beset by chronic crisis and polarization. (Just over the course of time I’ve been working on this post, this article in Haaretz went from a headline trumpeting Netanyahu’s advantage with the trip to labeling it a “political stunt Netanyahu might regret.”)
President Barack H. Obama, Officially (Mainly?) Out of F*&ks to Give
As Obama noted to some fanfare at the State of the Union address, he will never face another election. Netanyahu does. Soon. I don’t think the White House would have the stomach for it. But Obama could decline to meet with Netanyahu during his visit (I’d support that) – a move that would send shockwaves through the Israeli political system. Less ambitiously and much more likely, the White House might simply signal in numerous ways unhappiness with Netanyahu’s decision to openly work with congressional leaders to undermine administration policy on a critical issue. Disappointingly to me but probably wisely, President Obama decided some time ago that he’s not going to spend that much time bending over backwards to save Israel from itself. He does not care that much. Always good to remember: Israel is not America. He cares quite a lot about the deal he wants to reach with Iran.
Israeli elections are always interesting, in some ways even more so when they insinuate themselves into US politics, which they do frequently. My faint optimism here rests on the fact that Obama has no elections to face and Netanyahu has a recent record of very poor decision-making – the decision to force this election in the first place ranking high on the list.