Invited by Speaker John Boehner, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address Congress today, but will the visit change U.S.-Israel relations? Netanyahu is seen with Nancy Pelosi and Boehner during a March 2012 press conference in Washington, D.C. (© Benjamin J. Myers/Corbis photo)
Remember George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech 13 years ago? Iran was part of said axis, along with Iraq and North Korea. Back then, the president and the neoconservatives were fixated on Iraq. Today, it’s Iran’s turn.
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, will be addressing Congress today, Tuesday, March 3, as a guest of Speaker of the House John Boehner. On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Boehner said, “The demand for tickets, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
There’s a problem Bibi’s rock-star welcome from the speaker: The invitation was never cleared with President Obama.
So what’s Bibi doing there? Here’s an overview. Short version: Obama wants to pursue diplomatic talks with Iran about its nuclear program. Netanyahu opposes the idea. The Republican party sees this as a way to stick it to Obama and the Democrats.
Let’s break it down: A leader of a country’s opposition party has invited the leader of another country to undermine the leader of his own country. Suppose Obama was invited by Israel’s Labour Party to address the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral national legislature, without Netanyahu’s say-so. Suppose Obama planned to use that speech to push his Iran policy. Netanyahu would be livid. Right-wing media outlets would go bonkers.
Ironically, The Weekly Standard founder and professional neocon William Kristol defended Netanyahu in a recent article, even suggesting that Bibi loves America more than Obama does. Keep in mind that Kristol is not known for his accuracy or good judgment.
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, denounced Netanyahu’s visit as a partisan ploy that could damage U.S.-Israel relationships. Meanwhile two Democratic senators Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) invited Bibi to a closed-door meeting. He turned them down because it would “compound the misperception of partisanship.” Never mind the invitation from Boehner.
Ultimately, Netanyahu’s visit is about people wanting to keep their jobs. First of all, John Boehner. The house speaker’s political career is defined by hand gestures. He keeps his finger to the wind and his thumb positioned to poke the president in the eye. Like any politician who lacks a moral core (think Frank Underwood from the Netflix show “House of Cards”), he wants to keep the power he already has. In Boehner’s case, it means caving to the nuttier GOP congresscritters.
Netanyahu’s needs are more urgent: Israelis head to the voting booth on Tuesday, March 17. Israeli voters are understandably worried about the idea of Iran having nuclear weapons. It seems like the perfect wedge issue for the election.
But do Israelis support Bibi’s U.S. visit? Not necessarily. A lot of them are wary of it. Like Rice, they think it will damage their country’s relationship with the U.S. They also don’t want a nuclear Iran or Israel’s security to become partisan issues. Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition Zionist Union, urged Bibi to cancel the visit and talk directly with Obama.
The opposition in Israel isn’t totally partisan, either. Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad (Israel’s foreign intelligence agency) and outspoken critic of Netanyahu, was scathing in a recent interview: “Netanyahu may get applause in Congress, but all the power is in the White House. What will Netanyahu gain by addressing Congress? … This trip to Washington is doomed to failure.” Dagan will appear at a rally this weekend to encourage voters to vote against Bibi.
Back in the U.S., Dov Zakheim, a former official under presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and Middle East adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in Foreign Policy magazine pointing out how Bibi’s visit could backfire.
If anything about this visit sounds familiar, it should. A right-wing politician making reckless decisions that could undermine relations with allies. National security treated as a party-line issue. Disrespect for the opposition party, even questioning their loyalty to their country.
What’s their alternative to diplomacy? Here’s one possibility. Take it away, Sen. John McCain.
Meanwhile, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said: “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.” Slate’s response: “Oh, please.”
The Republicans didn’t learn anything from the Iraq war. They are pushing the same tired, discredited agenda to start another Middle East conflict, and they’re bringing in outside help this time.
So how do they plan to handle the third “Axis of Evil” nation, North Korea? It already has nuclear weapons. But it’s not in the Middle East, so it probably isn’t on the neocons’ radar. Hopefully, Boehner won’t invite Kim Jong-un to a special screening of “The Interview.”
Robin Cook is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.