John Boehner’s invitation to Bibi Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, without any consultation with the Obama administration, is an outrageous breech of protocol. But it’s worse than that: it’s an unprecedented intrusion into American domestic politics by a foreign power. It cements an increasingly open alliance between a foreign head of government with a major American political party. I can’t think of anything like this in American history without reaching back to the run-up to the Civil War, when the British supported the Southern secessionists.
Two or three dozen Democrats will skip Bibi’s speech; the rest will clap politely while the Republicans shower Bibi with thunderous ovations. The fact that the speech isn’t being boycotted by the overwhelming majority of Democrats is evidence of the tremendous influence wielded by the Israel lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), on Congress.
Bibi’s immediate objective in addressing Congress is, of course, to undermine the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. The overwhelming consensus among responsible observers is that the agreement is a good deal, balancing Iran’s legitimate interests against Western concerns. The Washington Monthly’s Nancy LeTourneau has usefully listed some of the analyses:
Robert Einhorn: Deterring an Iranian Nuclear Breakout
David Ignatius: A Compelling Argument on Iran
William Perry, Sean O’Keefe, Adm. James Stavridis and Joe Reeder: Let’s Make the Deal With Iran
Jeffrey Simpson: An Iran Opportunity Not to Be Missed
Why, then, is Bibi so adamantly opposed? That’s the kind of question I usually shy away from, since it calls for mind-reading skills that I lack. But it’s hard to avoid completely, since it’s necessary to respond to the notion that surely, there must be something to Bibi’s concerns. So, why is Bibi making such a fuss? Probably part of the explanation is that he is genuinely, sincerely paranoid in his perception of “existential” threats to Israel. But it’s also possible that Bibi is acting up just because he can. He wants to show how much influence he wields in the American political arena: Take notice, Obama! And even if he fails to block a deal with Iran, he will have amassed some political capital: OK, America, you didn’t give me what I wanted on Iran, but at least you can stop bothering me about making peace with the Palestinians.
Susan Rice is far from alone in saying that the Bibi-Boehner stunt will damage US-Israeli relations. She has been joined in that assessment by, among others, six retired Israeli generals and over 170 other former military and intelligence officials who comprise an organization called Commanders for Israel’s Security. (This shouldn’t be a surprise: the Israeli intelligence and defense establishments have long manifested a cooler and more realistic view of Iran than has their prime minister.) Even hawkish American friends of Israel like Robert Kagan worry about:
…the damage the prime minister’s decision could have on U.S.-Israeli relations going forward, and not just under this administration.…Looking back on it from years hence, will the spectacle of an Israeli prime minister coming to Washington to do battle with an American president wear well or poorly?
Even AIPAC reportedly sought to make Netanyahu aware of the negative consequences of his planned speech, but he was unmoved and AIPAC fell in line with his decision. This is consistent with AIPAC’s record of always, always supporting every action of the government of Israel without qualification. If AIPAC had an iota of independence, it would have expressed its misgivings about the Netanyahu speech, if not publicly, as even the ADL’s Abe Foxman has done, then informally. AIPAC is not technically a foreign agent; it gets no financial support from the government of Israel. But for all practical purposes, it serves as an agent of the Israeli government.
Bibi’s presumption may well have been counterproductive. He has opened some cracks in the usually monolithic pro-Israel unity of the US political establishment, especially among Democrats in Congress. I hope the cracks widen: the overwhelming uncritically pro-Israel bias of American politics prevents this country from exerting the pressure on Israel that is needed to bring about a settlement in Palestine.