Boehner was right on that score: President Obama doesn’t like it very much. Neither did Nancy Pelosi, who blasted Boehner’s move this morning as “inappropriate,” adding: “It’s out of the ordinary that the Speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation.”
But maybe this skirmish over diplomatic protocol is a good thing for everyone. Maybe we can stop pretending that Americans and Israelis are nothing more than loving and committed allies offering unwavering support to one another, when the truth is that parties in both countries are active participants in each other’s partisan politics.
The current disagreement is about negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. There’s a bill in the Senate, sponsored by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Bob Menendez, to impose new sanctions on Iran if a deal isn’t struck by June 30. The administration says that passing such legislation now, while the negotiations are at a sensitive point, would guarantee failure: the Iranians would pull out, then ramp up their nuclear program.
Republicans, and some Democrats like Menendez, don’t think so. They seem to believe that the only thing that produces results is being “tough,” and that even in diplomacy there are no carrots, only sticks. This also happens to be the position of the Netanyahu administration, which supports the sanctions bill. But not all in the Israeli government agree. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake report that the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, has been telling both the Obama administration and whatever American senators will listen that “if legislation that imposed a trigger leading to future sanctions on Iran was signed into law, it would cause the talks to collapse.”
So the Republicans have asked Netanyahu to come join them in this debate, and he is more than willing. Which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. For years we’ve had one party (the Republicans) that is fervently committed to the right-wing Likud’s vision for Israel, and another party (the Democrats) that is much more committed to the Israeli Labor party’s vision. When each holds the White House, they put those beliefs into policy. But both will say only that we all have a bipartisan commitment to “support” the Jewish state, as though what “support” means is always simple and clear.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has done what he can to help Republicans. In 2012, his all-but-explicit advocacy for Mitt Romney ended up getting him in trouble back home. The current Israeli ambassador to the U.S. is American-born political operative Ron Dermer; as Josh Marshall says: “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.”
And here’s a colorful illustration of the symbiotic relationship between the GOP and Netanyahu’s Likud. The Republican Party’s greatest patron is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who spent somewhere between $100 and $150 million trying to unseat Barack Obama in 2012. And who is Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest patron? None other than Sheldon Adelson, who a few years ago created a free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, whose primary purpose is to blanket the country with news favorable to Netanyahu.
It has long been true that the debate about what Israel should do — with regard to the Palestinians or anything else — is infinitely more varied and robust in Israel itself than here in the United States, where the only allowable public position for a politician to take is that we support whatever the Israeli government wants to do. This unanimity is maintained by a variety of forces, most notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which calls itself “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” but in practice has for decades been not the Israel lobby but the Likud lobby, representing one particular faction in Israeli politics.
Benjamin Netanyahu is the leader of his country, but he’s also the leader of that faction, and at the moment he’s in the midst of an election campaign (one the Obama administration would be all too happy to see him lose). If Congressional Republicans want him to come be a spokesperson for the Republican position in the debate over Iran, that’s fine. But we should use the occasion to allow ourselves a little honestly. Yes, the United States and Israel are close allies whose core interests are aligned. But in neither country is there agreement about how to serve those interests. There’s no such thing as a “pro-Israel” position on this issue, because Israelis themselves have a profound dispute about it, just as there’s no such thing as one “pro-America” position on anything we argue about.
So we can call this speech what it is: an effort by one conservative politician to help a bunch of other conservative politicians achieve their preferred policy. Maybe afterward, John Boehner can return the favor and cut some ads advocating Netanyahu’s reelection. Though I’m not sure how well that would go over in Israel.