Reuters has reported that Netanyahu has “declined … an invitation to meet with U.S. Senate Democrats during his trip to Washington next week.” By declining this meeting, Netanyahu violated two fundamental rules for being effective in Washington.
The first rule is, you should always be willing to talk to anyone who has useful information. I routinely tell corporate leaders and clients at my lobbying firm that we will talk to anyone who might be able to help us. Contrary to popular belief, power is being diffused in Washington, not becoming more concentrated, so talking to all the relevant players on any given issue can be labor-intensive. And if a client who leads a foreign government thought — regardless of the circumstances — that an invitation to address either the Democratic or Republican Senate caucus was somehow beneath him or her or was not worth his or her time, he or she and I would have to have a private chat.
I understand that sometimes you want to marginalize or isolate your critics, but you can’t put the entire Senate Democratic caucus in that category. The bottom line is that Netanyahu needs more support from Democrats in the Senate, not less. In replying to an invitation from Sens. Richard Durbin (Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Netanyahu said that participating in such a meeting would “compound the misperception of partisanship” of his upcoming visit; but his logic in this case is exactly backward. Refusing an invitation from one party or the other is the definition of partisanship. It breeds mistrust and disgruntlement and gives Senate Democrats a license to be aggrieved, making it easier for them to oppose what Netanyahu wants.
The second rule Netanyahu has ignored is a Clinton-ism I have adopted: “If you know what you’re talking about, you don’t mind talking.” Washington is full of talkers, so if you are selling, you better be prepared to talk — a lot. Netanyahu can hold his own in front of any audience, and it is critical that he be an effective advocate in Washington on this issue. The very idea that he would tell Democratic senators that the speech he will deliver in the House chamber is the only way to hear from him on this trip is colossally counterproductive. The whole episode regarding the original invitation for him to speak is unfortunate, but Netanyahu should be working to make a bad situation better, not worse.
The consequences of this administration potentially agreeing to a bad deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons capability would make the United States and Israel more vulnerable to an Iranian nuclear attack. Ordinarily, it shouldn’t take foreign advocates coming to town to make their case for our administration to do the right thing, but for whatever reason, it has become necessary. Netanyahu should have a very inclusive attitude about speaking with any member of Congress who is willing to listen. The stakes are too high to snub anyone or give your critics another reason to oppose you.
The good news is that it is not too late. His visit here, and the message he will relay, can still be useful. Netanyahu should do anything and everything he can to make sure his message is not eroded or overshadowed by wading into Washington politics any more than he already has.