In the musical Funny Girl about Jewish-American entertainer Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand implored her friend Eddie “Don’t bring a cloud to rain on my parade.” That’s what Benjamin Netanyahu did this week: he rained on President Obama’s parade, marred his victory lap, played party-pooper at the after-party that Obama was holding following his triumphant State of the Union Address. Their irreconcilable differences on Iran’s nuclear program might be overcome, eventually, but such a political and personal slight is neither quickly forgotten nor easily forgiven.
This isn’t the first time that Netanyahu is cast as a killjoy: he volunteered for the job, for example, in September 2013, after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s debutante ball at the United Nations in New York. The White House blew a gasket over that as well but at least Netanyahu had a reasonable Iranian alibi. On Wednesday, when House Speaker John Boehner pulled out a Netanyahu Congressional speech as a calculated counterattack to Obama’s gloating address, no excuses could help. Washington, literally, was shocked.
According to numerous reports, Obama’s aides at the White House couldn’t contain the foam on their mouths: “chickenshit”, according to one, was the mildest epithet used that day. The reaction was quickly forthcoming: President Obama won’t meet with Netanyahu when he is in Washington, and Netanyahu’s old friend John Kerry will stay away as well. It’s because of the elections, spokesperson Bernadette Meehan explained, with a wink big enough for the entire world to see.
The astonishment didn’t stop at Pennsylvania Avenue but moved from there to Capitol Hill. Even Democratic lawmakers who intend to go against the administration and support new sanctions taken aback by the Boehner-Bibi move. “Netanyahu is shooting himself in the foot,” one of them said, “because by turning this into a partisan issue, he may be forcing some Democratic members to choose between Boehner and Obama, which, for them, is no choice at all.” Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, quickly shot down claims coming from both Boehner and Netanyahu that the invitation to address Congress was “bipartisan”. No one consulted with me, Pelosi said, and the invitation is “inappropriate.”
Even the leaders of mainstream Jewish groups who normally and reflexively support Netanyahu were dumbfounded: no one informed them and no one had asked their opinion. “I was literally sick to my stomach when I heard about it,” one of them told me. J-Street criticized the move, of course, but even the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman called on Netanyahu and Boehner to come down from the high tree they had climbed. I support new sanctions, Foxman told Ron Kampeas at JTA, but this is “ill-advised.”
The warnings and protests started pouring into the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, which finally opted to move Netanyahu’s speaking engagement from February 11 to March 3, when it could be linked to the annual AIPAC conference. Of course, if the Prime Minister’s speech had been portrayed from the outset as an outgrowth of his wish to participate at the AIPAC get-together, much of the damage and its resonance could have been avoided. But we have this tendency to try and close the barn doors after the horses have bolted, and to stub a toe or sprain a leg in the process. Accordingly, Israel’s good name was sullied just a little bit more, it became a partisan punching bag and distanced itself further from the Democrats, it wasted far too much of the far too little credit it has left at the White House and it did a disservice to the cause which allegedly motivates Netanyahu in the first place: increasing the pressure on Iran by means of new sanctions legislation.
Everyone seems to agree, by the way, that chances are that such new legislation might indeed lead to a disruption of the nuclear talks with Tehran, as Obama told Congress on Tuesday. In his extraordinary public statement, the head of the Mossad did not deny saying that new sanctions would be like throwing a “hand grenade” into the talks: he just thinks that this will ultimately lead the Iranians to make more concessions. Obama has a more somber scenario in mind: that a breakdown in talks will lead to a confrontation with Iran, perhaps even to open hostilities. The prevention of such a clash is no less important to Obama than curtailing Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama offered a glimpse of his determination not to yield and his frustration with the forces he is confronting when he told Senator Robert Menendez and other Democratic lawmakers last Thursday, according to a report in the New York Times, that he “understood the pressure from donors” to support new sanctions. It’s not clear whether he meant specific donors, such as Sheldon Adelson, for example, or whether donors was simply a euphemism, as his critics claim, for Jews as a whole. Menendez, in any case, got back at Obama when he told Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken that the administration seems to be taking its talking points from Tehran. The unbridled rhetoric, it seems, is a measure of the turmoil underneath.
Netanyahu seems to think that new sanctions are a win-win situation for him and Israel: either the Iranians indeed make new concessions, which is good, or the United States is indeed left with no choice but to confront Tehran militarily, which is even better. Here’s another scenario, however, that Netanyahu may not have considered: that Obama’s repeated predictions that Iran will leave the talks not only make such a move almost inevitable, even before the whole veto override drama, but they also convict the responsible party in advance: Netanyahu, Republicans and their Democratic collaborators. The Iranians, meanwhile, will come out of this the aggrieved victims, and Obama’s international allies will urge him to get them back to the negotiating table, at any cost.
Many Republicans and foreign policy experts claim that under the auspices of the nuclear talks, Iran is spreading its extremist tentacles throughout the Middle East, from Libya to Yemen to Iraq and Afghanistan. Under these circumstances, it might be wiser to let the P5+1 talks reach their moment of truth sooner rather than hold them up for months with wrangling over additional sanctions; but when, like Netanyahu, you don’t seem to have any confidence in Obama’s resolution and tenacity, anything seems better than leaving the talks in his president’s hands.
Because notwithstanding their routine statements about the cordial phone talks they periodically hold on burning issues of the day, the bottom line is this: Obama and Netanyahu can’t stand each other, don’t believe in each other, and their relations are so bad that it’s become impossible for them to pretend otherwise. It’s true, as analysts and commentators routinely point out, that the United States and Israel have gone through crises that were far worse, from the Sinai withdrawal (1957) through the reassessment (1975) or the withholding of loan guarantees (1991). Nonetheless, as far as personal one-on-one relations are concerned, their mutual dislike, distrust and disdain, there is no precedent for the depth to which the ties between Obama and Netanyahu have sunk.
On the face of it, Netanyahu is probably lucky that Obama is a famously cold fish who does not allow his emotions, when he has them, to get in the way of his decisions or judgment. When he encounters hostility, as he has with the Republican leadership in Congress, he prefers to withdraw rather than engage in a fist fight. This is what happened as a result of the violent pushback against Obama’s May 2011 speech on talks based on the 1967 borders: he withdrew into his shell and, notwithstanding his March, 2013 visit to Israel, preferred to keep Netanyahu at arm’s length thereafter, rather than confront him head-on.
But Obama’s State of the Union speech may signal a change: he was confident, perhaps cocky even, certainly and uncharacteristically gung-ho: “bring it on” he seemed to be saying to his detractors. Perhaps Netanyahu was making his latest moves based on the same misplaced assessment of the political landscape that led him to support Mitt Romney on the assumption that Obama was living on borrowed time.
It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s bold gamble of infiltrating Washington by force two weeks before Israel’s March 17 elections will pay off for him electorally or turn out to be a double edged sword. Netanyahu may not have taken into consideration that he is dealing with an emboldened and possibly far more venomous U.S. President who may suddenly turn his new found audacity to getting rid of his least favored leader, anywhere in the world. Netanyahu certainly seems to have forgotten that if he wins the elections and returns as prime minister, it is he who will then have to figure out how to survive for the next two years in the barren landscape and scorched earth that he left behind him this week.