Sneaking around behind the President’s back to invite a foreign leader to address Congress – specifically for the purpose of undermining how the chief executive conducts US foreign policy – would normally be regarded by patriotic conservatives with unmitigated horror. Imagine, for example, if a Democratic Congress had invited Daniel Ortega to address the assembled solons back in the 1980s, when President Reagan was (covertly) funding and supporting a contra movement to overthrow the Sandinista regime. Heads would’ve exploded all across the political spectrum, not just on the right. While this example is somewhat more dramatic than House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – for the specific purpose of undermining the nuclear talks with Iran – it isn’t by much.
The Boehner ploy has split the pro-Israel community down the middle, with such stalwarts as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman denouncing it as "ill-advised" and former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk – founder of the staunchly pro-Israel Saban Center at the Brookings Institution – saying:
"Netanyahu is using the Republican Congress for a photo-op for his election campaign, and the Republicans are using Bibi for their campaign against Obama. Unfortunately, the US relationship will take the hit. It would be far wiser for us to stay out of their politics and for them to stay out of ours.”
The shock waves are extending in all directions in response to this act of political sabotage, reaching even the far-right shores of Fox News, where anchors Chris Wallace and Shepherd Smith engaged in a most unusual dialogue, pillorying the usually sacrosanct Israelis. In response to a reading of the above Indyk quote, Wallace averred:
"And to make you get a sense of really how, forgive me, wicked, this whole thing is, the Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States for two hours on Tuesday, Ron Dermer, the [Israeli] ambassador, never mentioned the fact that Netanyahu was in negotiations and finally agreed to come to Washington, not to see the president, but to go to Capitol Hill, speak to a joint session of congress and criticize the president’s policy. I have to say I’m shocked."
Digging the dagger in a little deeper, Smith commented that “it seems like [the Israelis] think we don’t pay attention and that we’re just a bunch of complete morons, the United States citizens, as if we wouldn’t pick up on what’s happening here."
But of course we are just a bunch of complete morons, or, at least, one would have to conclude that given the conduct of US-Israeli relations since at least the Clinton era. The "special relationship" that supposedly exists between the two countries has been characterized by its one-sidedness. No matter how many times Washington has – politely – asked the Israelis to rein in their worst impulses and (for example) restrain the "settler" movement, successive Israeli leaders have expanded the settlements with unabated fervor. When Vice President Biden visited Israel to straighten things out, he was ambushed and humiliated. It was none other than Gen. David Petraeus, hardly a Palestinian partisan, who pointed out how this extreme “favoritism” toward Israel endangers American interests in the region and actually imperils our interests.
Our policy of unconditional support to whatever government is in charge over there could not last, and now we see it coming to an end in a dramatic display of open acrimony – a hostility that was always bubbling just beneath the surface and is now embarrassingly apparent for all to see.
While this is being portrayed as a personal spat between the American President and the combative Israeli leader – Bibi has shown "disdain" for Obama, we are told, and the feeling is replicated on the other side – the matter goes deeper than that. That even the normally pro-Israel, pro-Bibi propagandists over at Fox News are now expressing their "shock" over the sheer deviousness of the Israelis is merely a belated recognition of a fact that has been glossed over for far too long. Israeli and American interests have been diverging since the end of the cold war, and the 9/11 attacks accelerated the widening gap.
The "special relationship" has always been based on a myth, the impossible premise that no daylight can exist between American and Israeli interests. This is impossible because, after all, the US and the Jewish state are separate (and quite different) countries, with specific – and often conflicting – interests. During the cold war, when Israel was arrayed with the West against the Soviet Union (although not always reliably), this elementary fact of international relations was more easily evaded. Today, however, as the Middle East is increasingly the focal point of US foreign policy, and Israel’s internal political landscape takes on the coloration of unmitigated extremism, the policy of unconditional support has become untenable. What’s telling is that it’s the Israelis who are the first to recognize it, while US officials are still caught up in the old mythology.
Nothing illustrates this point more convincingly than the opening paragraphs of this New York Times account of the brouhaha:
"The Obama administration, after days of mounting tension, signaled on Wednesday how angry it is with Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted Republican leaders’ invitation to address Congress on Iran without consulting the White House.
"The outrage the episode has incited within President Obama’s inner circle became clear in unusually sharp criticism by a senior administration official who said that the Israeli ambassador, Ron Dermer, who helped orchestrate the invitation, had repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States."
Earth to Obama administration: why shouldn’t the Israeli ambassador – who, after all, is a political appointee – place the fortunes of his own government over the interests of a foreign country? Isn’t this what all governments everywhere do?
Libertarians are quick to recognize this, naturally enough, but even given the administration’s lack of clarity on the essentially self-interested outlook of all politicians everywhere, why should the Israelis not recognize the unbalanced nature of the US-Israeli relationship and continue to take full advantage of it, as they have done in the past?
Contra Ambassador Indyk, this isn’t just about Netanyahu shoring up his political interests at home. Nor is it about current Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer’s history as a Republican political operative. As Dermer told the Times: "I have no regrets whatsoever that I have acted in a way to advance my country’s interests."
If only American Presidents could say the same!
Netanyahu is interfering in American politics – and not for the first time – because he believes it’s in Israel’s interests to do so. Whether this truly does serve Israel’s interests, given that country’s near total dependence on its US patron, is debatable. What isn’t debatable, however, is Bibi’s view of this, and there is good reason to believe this opinion is shared by the overwhelming majority of the Israeli electorate. The Israelis see Iran as an "existential threat" to their very existence: their goal is to reduce it, and, if possible, eliminate it as a factor in Middle East power politics.
They don’t have the means to do this by themselves, and so, as in the case of the Iraq war – as in so many other instances – they are leveraging the vast power of their principal ally to do the job. And if they have to twist arms and intervene directly into American politics to accomplish their goal, then so be it.
The United States has consistently appeased Netanyahu, and his predecessors, as one would placate a spoiled child. Not surprisingly, the child has reacted with increasingly unreasonable behavior. Bibi’s current tantrum underscores the foolishness of US policy, and points the way to a more rational approach.
In the winter of 1956, during the Suez crisis, Israel, France, and Britain attacked Egypt, with the Israelis occupying great swathes of Egyptian territory, including the Sinai peninsula. President Dwight Eisenhower reacted swiftly, pressuring both the French and the British to withdraw, which they did: Israel, however, was adamant. They would keep most of the Sinai, and that was that. Eisenhower responded by having the US representative vote for a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the Israeli occupation: only France and Israel dissented.
Still the stubborn Israelis persisted, refusing to give up their conquests. When the President went to Congress to gain support for pressuring Israel, he was met with a Boehner-esque wall of resistance: the Israel lobby was hard at work shoring up its congressional defenses, and it worked. Congress wouldn’t go along with Eisenhower, and so the President went over their heads, straight to the American people. In a nationally-televised address he informed his audience of Israel’s refusal to withdraw and engaged the Israel Firsters directly:
"This raises a basic question of principle. Should a nation which attacks and occupies foreign territory in the face of United Nations disapproval be allowed to impose conditions on its own withdrawal?
"If we agree that armed attack can properly achieve the purposes of the assailant, then I fear we will have turned back the clock of international order. We will, in effect, have countenanced the use of force as a means of settling international differences and through this gaining national advantages.
"… If the United Nations once admits that international disputes can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the Organization, and our best hope of establishing a world order. That would be a disaster for us all.
"I would, I feel, be untrue to the standards of the high office to which you have chosen me, if I were to lend the influence of the United States to the proposition that a nation which invades another should be permitted to exact conditions for withdrawal.
"Of course, we and all the members of the United Nations ought to support justice and conformity with international law. The first Article of the Charter states the purpose of the United Nations to be ‘the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes.’ But it is to be observed that conformity with justice and international law are to be brought about ‘by peaceful means.’
"We cannot consider that the armed invasion and occupation of another country are “peaceful means” or proper means to achieve justice and conformity with international law."
Eisenhower also opened up another front in the battle against the Israel lobby: he threatened then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion with the prospect of a presidential directive which would have cut off all private assistance to Israel, including the sale of Israeli state bonds.
This did the trick. Ben Gurion caved, the Sinai was evacuated, and the prospect of a regional war was averted.
Does Obama have what it takes to follow in Eisenhower’s footsteps? I doubt it, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. The overwhelming majority of Americans support the Iran talks, and are likely to resent foreign interference in American politics as soon as it becomes intrusive for them to notice. Economic sanctions aren’t in the cards, but other forms of sanctions don’t require congressional approval – and a frank informational one-on-one talk with the American people would do wonders to break up the Israeli fifth column on Capitol Hill.
The mindless pro-Israel-at-any-price consensus in American politics is heading for a crack up. The question is: does the President of the United States have the guts to press his advantage and – for once – put America’s interests first?