EVEN friends of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are second-guessing his decision to accept US House Speaker John Boehner ’s invitation to address congress next month on the subject of Iran, over loud objections from the Obama administration. The prospect of the speech, those friends say, has sparked a needless crisis between Jerusalem and Washington. And it has left Democrats with an invidious choice between their loyalty to the President and their support for the Jewish state, jeopardising the bipartisan basis of the US-Israel relationship.Sensible concerns — except for a few things.
Relations between Israel and the US have been in crisis nearly from the moment Barack Obama stepped into office. Democratic support for Israel has been eroding for decades. It was the US President, not the Israeli Prime Minister, who picked this fight.
Oh, and if there’s going to be a blowout in US-Israel relations, is now really a worse time than later this year, when the Obama administration will have further cornered Israel with its Iran diplomacy?
Because memories are short, let’s remind ourselves of the Ur-moment in the Bibi-Barack drama. It happened on May 18, 2009, when Netanyahu, in office for just a few weeks, arrived to a White House that was demanding that he endorse Palestinian statehood and freeze settlements, even as the administration was rebuffing Israeli requests to set a deadline for the nascent nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
The result: within a month of that meeting, Netanyahu duly endorsed Palestinian statehood in a speech at Israel’s right-wing Bar-Ilan University — roughly the equivalent of Obama going to a meeting of the Sierra Club and urging its members to get over their opposition to fracking. By the end of the year, Netanyahu further infuriated his right-wing base by agreeing to a 10-month settlement freeze, which even secretary of state Hillary Clinton acknowledged was “unprecedented”.
What did Netanyahu get in return from Obama? While the President stuck to his refusal to set “an artificial deadline”, he did concede in a joint press conference that “we’re not going to have talks forever. We’re not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds with developing a nuclear, and deploying a nuclear weapon”.
The promise not to “have talks forever” was made six years ago. Since then, diplomatic efforts have included the 2009 “fuel swap” proposal; the 2010 Brazil-Turkey-Iran declaration; the 2011 Russian “step-by-step proposal”; the 2012 diplomatic rounds in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow; and finally the 2013 Joint Plan of Action, a six-month interim deal that is now in its 13th month.
Now Obama is vowing to veto the bipartisan Kirk-Menendez bill that would end the charade by imposing sanctions on Iran in the event Tehran doesn’t sign an acceptable nuclear deal by the northern summer — that is, after the third deadline for the interim agreement has expired. The President is also demanding that Democrats rally around him in his histrionic fit over the Netanyahu speech. This is from the same administration that, as Politico’s David Rogers reminds us, never bothered to consult Boehner on its invitation to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to address congress in 2011.
This history is worth recalling because it underscores the unpleasant truth about America in the age of Obama.
The President collects hard favours from allies and repays them with neglect and derision. He is eager to accommodate the political needs of authoritarian leaders like Iran’s Hasan Rowhani but has no use for the political needs of elected leaders like Netanyahu. He believes that it is for other statesmen to stake their political lives and risk their national future for the sake of a moral principle — at least as Obama defines that principle. As for him, the only thing sacred is his own political convenience.
Netanyahu also needs to speak because congress deserves an unvarnished account of the choice to which Obama proposes to put Israel: either accede to continued diplomacy with Iran, and therefore its de facto nuclearisation; or strike Iran militarily in defiance of the US and Obama’s concordat with Tehran. A congressional vote in favour of Kirk-Menendez would at least make good on Obama’s unmet promise not to use talks as “an excuse for inaction”.
Above all, Netanyahu needs to speak because Israel cannot expect indefinite support from the US if it acts like a fretful and obedient client to a cavalier American patron.
The margin of Israel’s security is measured not by anyone’s love but by the respect of friends and enemies alike. By giving this speech, Netanyahu is demanding that respect. Irritating the President is a small price to pay for doing so.