At first blush, it might seem that the White House has become unhinged over an appearance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress. After days of whining that Netanyahu’s appearance was not cleared with the White House, U.S. officials have taken to the press to anonymously screech and moan, accusing the Israeli ambassador — gasp! — of furthering the prime minister’s interests at the expense of his relations with the administration. (This is rich, considering the president’s hot-mike comment about Netanyahu and a senior official’s recent use of a barnyard epithet to criticize Netanyahu). In a separate New York Times article (one was not enough to assist the White House propaganda machine!), the Netanyahu speech is portrayed as helping the White House round up opposition to the Menendez-Kirk sanctions. The kicker is a quote from the president of the notoriously anti-Israel J Street — which the Times originally falsely labeled as “a Democratic-aligned pro-Israel group” and later changed to “Israeli advocacy group” after a spate of mocking tweets on Wednesday night — piling on the anti-Netanyahu criticism. (This would be akin to identifying Vladimir Putin as a pro-peace voice on Ukraine or the Saudi king as a defender of human rights.) The latter is ludicrous. The Menendez-Kirk bill was introduced this week and is set to be marked up in the Senate Banking Committee soon. For the first time, 10 Democrats have promised to vote for the conditional sanctions at a specified time (after March 24).
The complaint from the White House is so disproportionate to the issue and so defensive (is the president so petrified that Congress might hear a compelling speech from the United States’ best ally in the Middle East?) that one wonders what it is up to. Incidentally, had the 10 Democrats not demanded a delay in the vote until March 24, Netanyahu’s visit and speech in early March would not be nearly as significant and would have come after a vote. Perhaps the president’s beef is with Democrats, not the Israelis.
Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, who served in President George W. Bush’s exceptionally pro-Israel administration, remarks:
Iran’s nuclear program is one of the most significant national security issues we face and an even larger issue for Israel, and Israel is one of this country’s closest allies. The bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu, which has included personal attacks on Netanyahu by the White House staff, should not be allowed to color what the Speaker does. I think it’s fine that Obama will not see Netanyahu so close to the Israeli election; that’s a good practice in general and avoids the inference of U.S. intervention in a foreign electoral contest. (Of course, in this case no Israeli over the age of five can possibly have any doubt that Obama wants to see Netanyahu lose his job.) Moreover, it avoids the painful spectacle of Obama and Netanyahu making believe they like each other and have enjoyed seeing each other again.
But the White House’s whining about Boehner’s invitation is amateurish, and for the reasons [Walter Russell] Mead explained it will persuade few Americans beyond the Beltway. Given the situation in the Middle East and the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran (where the United States has abandoned almost every red line it ever set), it’s no wonder Obama would like to silence Netanyahu–and no wonder that Netanyahu wants to speak about Iran and that the Speaker wants to hear him.
Other Israel watchers speculate that this is really a ham-handed way of interfering with Israel’s elections by giving fuel to Netanyahu’s opponents, who argue that he cannot get along with the United States. This would be par for the course for an administration that has strained to topple the Israeli government. Its offense? It simply refuses to knuckle under to administration bullying or go quietly as the United States appeases Iran, an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Ironically, the scuffle comes just after Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists killed two Israeli soldiers, reminding us that Iran is on the march throughout the region and that the Iranian government with which Obama hopes to achieve a grand reconciliation is committed to Israel’s destruction.
To sum up, the administration uses Tehran’s talking points to decry passage of a sanctions bill that would go into effect only if Iran refused to make a deal by June along the lines the administration itself outlined. It attacks the leadership of our democratic ally Israel (which it tried to undermine in cease-fire talks at the end of the Gaza war by adopting the plan of Hamas’s patron Qatar) and refuses to meet with its elected leader when he visits. To boot, the administration throws a fit that Congress invited him to speak — all to give Netanyahu’s opponents back home fodder for their election campaign. At least there is no doubt this is the most anti-Israel and immature White House in history.
By the by, Hillary Clinton has endorsed the administration’s approach to Iran. Does she agree with all of this “smart” diplomacy as well? At least the American people, who remain doggedly pro-Israel, will have a choice in 2016 between a third Obama term and a robustly pro-Israel GOP nominee (for there can be no other kind in an overwhelmingly pro-Israel party).
UPDATE: In a blow to the White House’s campaign against Netanyahu and the New York Times’ credibility, the Menendez-Kirk bill passed the Senate Banking Committee by an 18-4 vote with six Democrats.