When I was growing up, I remember a saying that was used to describe the behavior of persons who were so cocky that they did really dumb things—”He’s so smart, he’s stupid”.
I thought of this expression when I heard Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, announce that he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in order to challenge President Obama’s handling of “the grave threats of radical Islam and Iran”.
I’m sure that, as he was making his announcement, Boehner thought that he was being the smartest guy in Washington. He had just stolen the President’s thunder on the day after the State of the Union speech. I’m equally sure that Netanyahu sat back in Jerusalem crowing to himself just how smart he was to be in a position, once again, to deliver a frontal assault against an American President who had the temerity to oppose him.
Boehner’s invitation was not so much intended as a challenge to the President’s foreign policy; he had some obvious political motives, as well. According to Israeli press reports, the idea for the speech was first suggested by Israel’s Ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. Dermer, a former Republican operative and a confidant of both Netanyahu and billionaire GOP donor, Sheldon Adelson, had apparently proposed the idea of the speech to Republican leaders as early as January 8th. An agreement was reached for the Speaker to extend the invitation days before the State of the Union—without any notice given to the White House or the Department of State.
Netanyahu is running for reelection in Israel facing opponents who are raising concerns that he has damaged the US-Israel relationship. He, therefore, craves the opportunity of standing before an adoring US Congress giving him multiple standing ovations enabling him to demonstrate that he, not Obama, rules in American politics. It was Netanyahu, after all, who was caught on tape a decade ago telling supporters “I know what America is…America is a thing you can move very easily”. And he believes that he has a record to justify his cockiness.
Netanyahu has long been married to the neo-conservative wing of the Republican party, working with them for years to sabotage US peace-making efforts. During the 1990’s, he collaborated with the Gingrich-led Congress to pass the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act, over the objections of both President Clinton and then Israeli Prime Minister Rabin. Once elected as Prime Minister, Netanyahu delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress, at Gingrich’s invitation, pledging to end the Oslo peace process. That speech had been written with the help of leading American neo-conservatives like Richard Perle, Doug Feith, and David Wurmser.
He used his next appearance before Congress in 2011, at Boehner’s invitation, to rebuke President Obama’s call for a peace agreement based on the “1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps”. At the time, observers across the globe were amazed at the gall of Congress to invite a foreign leader to slap their president in the face and then to respond by giving the foreign leader 29 standing ovations.
So the ever self-assured Netanyahu relishes the opportunity that his agents cooked up for him to once again demonstrate that he, together with his Republican allies, can dominate Washington. The fact that his appearance comes just weeks before the Israeli election is “icing on the cake”.
Crass political calculations are also key to Boehner’s intent. Not only does he get to embarrass the President, the invitation presents an opportunity for Republicans to try to make Israel a wedge-issue showing that they, not Democrats, are Israel’s best friends in Washington. And it doesn’t hurt that the decision to bring the Prime Minister to Congress will make Sheldon Adelson happy. Adelson, after all, spent more than $100 million in a failed effort to defeat Obama in 2012, and has committed to spend at least as much to bring a Republican to the White House in 2016.
While the calculations made by both sides may seem smart, there’s more to this story.
Washington’s reaction to this breach in protocol was immediate. The White House and State Department made it clear that they would not meet with the Israeli leader when he comes to the US. One American official was quoted in the Israeli press saying that not having the courtesy to call the White House to inform them that he was scheduling a speech before Congress “is not the way people act…it is unprecedented. It is barbaric behavior. It is so impolite that it is disgraceful. It is simply inconceivable”. The same official noted that “the Israelis know how to pick up the phone…screaming for help” when it comes to opposing Palestinian efforts at the UN, the International Criminal Court, or for more help with Iron Dome. Another American official reminded the Israelis that Obama will be president for two more years, and doesn’t have to worry about another election campaign.
Media commentators were equally put off by the Boehner/Netanyahu attempted coup calling it an effort to undermine American leadership and an unprecedented breach of protocol.
Several leading Israelis commentators were likewise concerned that “Netanyahu’s Congressional gambit…could endanger Israel’s long-term interests in the United States” and, in any case, would most likely not sway Israeli voters who, at this point, either love or hate the long-time Prime Minister. More interesting were reports that the leadership of Israeli intelligence agency undercut their Prime Minister’s case by warning a visiting group of US Senators against imposing any new sanctions targeting Iran while negotiations are on-going. They said that such a move would be akin to “throwing a grenade into the process”.
If Netanyahu won’t politically benefit from his effort in Israel, will Boehner and the GOP fare any better with the American electorate? Those pundits who suggest that Boehner’s action threatens to make support for Israel into a partisan issue miss an important point—it already is a partisan issue and is becoming more so with every passing year.
The division of the American electorate is not merely by party, but by demographics. Republican base voters are largely older and white and male, including a strong cohort who identify themselves as “born-again Christians”. Democratic voters, on the other hand, are young people, professional educated women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. What Obama’s victories demonstrated is that the GOP base is shrinking while the Democrat’s base is growing. Furthermore, our polls show that Democrats (that is, younger, educated, and “minority” voters) may continue to support Israel, in the abstract, but are increasingly opposed to Israeli behaviors. And while Netanyahu has strong favorable ratings among Republicans, his ratings are decidedly lower among Democrats. And, by the way, polls also show that the vast majority of American Jews continue to vote for Democrats, supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012 (as did Arab Americans), and support his efforts to rein in Iran and achieve and just Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The Boehner/Netanyahu insult to the President may get cheers from some weak-kneed Members of Congress in both parties, but it won’t sway voters either in Israel or the US. And if Congress attempts to buck the President by passing new sanctions legislation, he will, as promised, veto the bill. And so it appears that the instigators of this entire affair will get little more than a black eye for their efforts.
The bottom line: this was one of the most ham-fisted, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous political stunts ever engineered by American and Israeli political leaders. All I can say is “they were so smart, they were stupid”.