An Israeli Insult

Benjamin Netanyahu is risking U.S.-Israeli relations on partisan politics. It’s revolting and dangerous.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his office in Jerusalem on Feb. 15, 2015. 

Photo by Abir Sultan/Reuters

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is coming to the United States. On Tuesday, he’ll address a joint session of Congress. Netanyahu wants to rally Americans against President Obama’s plan for a nuclear agreement with Iran. He’s coming here at the unilateral invitation of congressional Republicans, in defiance of warnings from the White House.

Nothing like this has ever happened before. The opposition party is convening a special session of Congress so that a foreign leader, on the floor of our national legislature, can rebuke the foreign policy of our president.

The breach is bad enough. But the story of how it happened, and the hostility and disrespect behind it, are worse. Israel negotiated the speaking engagement with aides to House Speaker John Boehner for at least 13 days without telling the White House. Not until the morning of Jan. 21—a day after the plan was sealed, and two hours before it was announced publicly—did Boehner inform the administration.

Boehner made clear that the invitation’s purpose was to counter Obama’s message and challenge his policies. He cited the president’s State of the Union address, delivered the previous evening. “I did not consult with the White House. The Congress can make this decision on its own,” the speaker declared. “There’s a serious threat that exists in the world. And the president last night kind of papered over it.”

The White House, blindsided, expressed its dismay. “The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” said Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest. “So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

Netanyahu was undeterred. On Jan. 22, he announced that he was accepting the invitation. He claimed it had been extended “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership” in Congress.

Democrats corrected him. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said they hadn’t been consulted. “It’s out of the ordinary that the speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation,” said Pelosi. She added: “I don’t think that’s appropriate, for any country, that the head of state would come here within two weeks of his own election.”

The White House announced that if Netanyahu came, Obama wouldn’t meet with him. “The President will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu because of the proximity to the Israeli election, which is just two weeks after his planned address to the U.S. Congress,” said a statement from the National Security Council. The State Department added that Secretary of State John Kerry wouldn’t meet with Netanyahu either. The White House noted that Obama opposed legislation—which Boehner and Netanyahu supported—to impose further sanctions on Iran. The statement explained: “The President has been clear about his opposition to Congress passing new legislation on Iran that could undermine our negotiations and divide the international community.”

Netanyahu pushed right back. On Jan. 25, Israel’s Army Radio disclosed new talking points issued by Netanyahu’s party, Likud. The talking points instructed party members to emphasize that Congress could override Obama’s veto of a sanctions bill. This was the prime minister’s objective: to marshal Congress against the president.

Boehner called Netanyahu the perfect man for the job. In interviews with CBS News on Jan. 25 and Fox News on Jan. 28, Boehner said he had invited Netanyahu to highlight threats Obama was ignoring. The speaker was asked whether the Obama administration felt “antipathy” toward Netanyahu. “Of course there is,” he replied. “They don’t even try to hide it.”

By this point, it was obvious that the invitation was a slap at Obama. Netanyahu could have backed out. But the prospect of standing up to Obama didn’t discourage the prime minister. It exhilarated him. “We are not afraid to determinedly object to the risky agreement that is being formulated between the world powers and Iran,” Netanyahu proclaimed on Jan. 29. “We do not hesitate to speak up clearly, even if there are those who refuse to hear.”

A week later, Netanyahu criticized the United States directly. “The American secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister held talks over the weekend,” Netanyahu warned Israelis on Feb. 8. “They announced that they intend to complete a framework agreement by the end of March. From this stems the urgency of our efforts to try and block this bad and dangerous agreement.” At a campaign rally the next day, Netanyahu criticized those who quibbled about “protocol.”

Netanyahu didn’t explicitly aim his remark at Obama’s press secretary. But Obama decided to step in. “It’s important for us to maintain these protocols, because the U.S.-Israeli relationship is not about a particular party,” the president explained on Feb. 9, the day of Netanyahu’s campaign rally. “This isn’t a relationship founded on affinity between the Labor Party and the Democratic Party, or Likud and the Republican Party.” Obama said he didn’t want the U.S.-Israeli relationship to be “clouded with what could be perceived as partisan politics.”

Netanyahu brushed aside the president’s warning. “I intend to speak in the U.S. Congress because Congress might have an important role on a nuclear deal with Iran,” the prime minister affirmed the next day. Netanyahu wasn’t going to let Obama talk him out of speaking to Congress, because the point of speaking to Congress was to thwart Obama.

On Feb. 15, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Boehner why he had told Israel’s U.S. ambassador not to inform the White House about the discussions to arrange the speech. Boehner replied: “Because I wanted to make sure that there was no interference. There’s no secret here in Washington about the animosity that this White House has for Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I frankly didn’t want them getting in the way.”

Boehner wasn’t just asserting his right to a separate foreign policy. He was telling the president to butt out of it. A prudent Israeli prime minister, sensing the constitutional showdown, might have backed out at this point. But not Netanyahu. On Feb. 16, he doubled down:

Why am I going to Congress? Because Israel has been offered the opportunity to make its case on this crucial issue before the world’s most important parliament; because a speech before Congress allows Israel to present its position to the elected representatives of the American people and to a worldwide audience; because Congress has played a critical role in applying pressure to the Iranian regime … and because Congress may very well have a say on the parameters of any final deal with Iran.

The last line—“have a say”—was the money quote. Netanyahu wanted leverage against Obama. Congress was the leverage.

This week, the confrontation escalated. On Sunday, Netanyahu called the continuation of talks with Iran “astonishing.” On Tuesday, he rejected an invitation to speak privately with Democratic senators during his visit. On Wednesday, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, warned Boehner and Netanyahu that “by virtue of the invitation … and the acceptance of it … on both sides there has now been injected a degree of partisanship” that is “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between Israel and the United States.

Netanyahu is plowing right through the stop sign. On Friday, he told an Israeli interviewer that he’s coming to Washington to enlist the American public against Obama’s Iran policy. “I am going there to try to stop the deal from happening,” said the prime minister. “In most of the U.S., there is support for Israel. So I can have differences with the U.S. president. … What is not legitimate about us speaking our minds? Especially when the majority supports us.”

That’s Netanyahu’s wager. He believes Obama’s policy is catastrophically wrong. To defeat it, he’s willing to ally the government of Israel with congressional leaders who are openly trying to humiliate the president and seize control of U.S. foreign policy. Netanyahu thinks he can get away with this because you love Israel, no matter how its prime minister behaves, more than you love the president of the United States. Is he right?