Meir Dagan, former head of Israel's Mossad espionage agency, says that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's scheduled speech to the U.S. Congress is an "excessive provocation" of America and "the gravest blow to [Israel's] security." Dov Weisglass, the closest adviser of late prime minister Ariel Sharon, said on Israel's prime-time version of Meet the Press, that the speech will cause "terrible damage" to Israel.
Speaking of talk shows, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters at a Democratic retreat on Friday that if Netanyahu wants to tell Americans his views on Iran, a Sunday morning interview program would be a better venue. Netanyahu is a fixture on such shows, she said. Pelosi didn't say that Democratic lawmakers would stay away from Netanyahu's address on March 3—but she wouldn't promise they'd show up either.
Nearly two weeks after House Speaker John Boehner announced the upcoming Netanyahu address—cooked up with former Republican activist and current Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer—the affair is not fading away. Since there is no Richter scale for diplomatic shockwaves, it's hard to judge the claim that this is the worst-ever crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.
What may be unique, though, is the way in which Netanyahu recruited Boehner's support in Israeli politics—and, at the very same time, the speaker enlisted the prime minister's support in the Congress versus White House, Republican versus Democratic battle. It's a twofer of meddling. The immediate payoff for Boehner appears to be zilch; for Netanyahu it's murkier.
What the two have actually succeeded in doing is to present U.S. support for Israel, more than ever before, as GOP support for the Likud. The anger shown to the public by Pelosi, other Democratic lawmakers, and the White House, however restrained, is refreshing. On the other hand, mainstream American Jewish organizations have mostly been silent, at least so far. That's not surprising, but it's a bad mistake.
If Boehner and Netanyahu expected to build support in Congress for passing the bill on new Iran sanctions now—defying Obama, sabotaging the talks with Tehran, and quite possibly boosting the odds of military confrontation with Iran down the road—the gambit has backfired. The decision by Democratic backers of the bill to withdraw their support until after the March 24 deadline for an agreement with Iran has made it pointless for Republicans to pass the bill beforehand. The potential for overriding Obama's veto has evaporated.
As for Netanyahu and his congressional co-conspirator's hope of boosting the prime minister's reelection bid, the consequences are less clear. March 3—the date of Netanyahu’s scheduled speech in the Capitol—is precisely two weeks before Israeli Election Day. Netanyahu is nearly sure to get live televised coverage at home, enjoying waves of applause as he reminds voters to be very afraid of Iran. Perhaps the spectacle will place national security—or rather insecurity—back in the center of the campaign.
But even before the speech was announced, deteriorating relations with the United States were a campaign issue. To be more precise, the issue is the damage that Netanyahu has done to ties with his country’s essential ally, and the potential cost in diplomatic support precisely as Israel is becoming more isolated internationally. As the criticism from ex-Sharon adviser Weisglass shows, you don't have to be on the left to believe that Netanyahu has blown it.
By the way, on the same interview program on which Weisglass appeared, the host asked Netanyahu's stand-in, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, if Boehner might have been acting on behalf of Sheldon Adelson. She did not bother to identify Adelson as the billionaire backer of the GOP and of Netanyahu. She could assume anyone watching a political show knows his name, and knows about Netanyahu's dependence on and support for one side of the American political spectrum. Steinitz, for his part, denied any connection and changed the subject.
This isn't new. Netanyahu has worked assiduously to transform Israel into an American partisan issue—part of the same conservative package as opposing abortion and starving the government—since his first term in the late 1990s. More recently, he did his best to support Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. election. It was only partly Netanyahu's fault that Romney's mid-campaign visit to Israel was a long string of faux pas.
Nonetheless, using the ambassador to the Republican Party—I mean to the United States—to engineer an Israeli campaign speech that is also an attack on the Democratic president has wonderfully clarified Netanyahu's approach to understanding of relations with America.
This should be a disaster warning for major organizations that claim to represent the American Jewish community and that have cultivated backing from both parties for the American alliance with Israel.
"Without the support of both Democrats and Republicans, making the case for the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship becomes much harder to do," says Greg Rosenbaum, board chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Rosenbaum carefully said he wouldn't "ascribe motives" to Netanyahu, but added, "I am more concerned about the apparent unwillingness... to say, you know what, this is a bad idea, and we'll give our speech to AIPAC... We ought find an acceptable way to back out of Boehner invitation."
The standard fantasy of Republican-oriented Jewish groups is that the party's ever-louder allegiance to the Israeli right will at last convince the majority of American Jews to abandon the Democratic Party. The effect of the GOP asserting its ownership of the Israel issue will probably be the opposite. If Israel is fully identified with the conservative agenda, Rosenbaum says, "American Jews are going to say, 'Well, look, I have other issues that are more important to me than Israel and... I'm going to vote on those other issues.'"
And, I'd add, they'll decide that other issues are more important to their lives—as a growing number already have. This, of course, is a product of more than the speech affair, or of Netanyahu's very Republican inability to accept that Obama actually is president. Netanyahu isn't solely responsible for the occupation, even if he has spent his years as prime minister building settlements and evading a two-state agreement. Nor is he solely responsible for transforming Israel from a model of social democracy that inspired progressives elsewhere to a country nearly as unegalitatian as America—though he has been the most rigidly Reaganist manager of Israel's economy. Despite the constant diversion he provides with Holocaust-tinted fear-mongering, he has had a great deal of help from mainstream American Jewish organizations in stifling discussion of these issues.
The difference made by the latest Netanyahu-Boehner effort to identify Israel with the Republican Party is this: In the past, as Peter Beinart has written, American Jews may have been asked "to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door." Now they are being asked to chuck their liberalism entirely—or chuck any identification with Israel.
Rosenbaum's NJDC has an obvious partisan interest in this clash, which doesn't make his cautious criticism less valid. The outgoing head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, has even more cautiously said that the "invitation and acceptance are ill-advised," and suggested that Boehner and Netanyahu "climb down." Other than those two, well-placed figures in major Jewish organizations with whom I spoke could not point to a public response from leaders of establishment Jewish groups.
The silence is hardly non-partisan. It's acquiescence in—or support of—Boehner’s and Netanyahu's ploy. To say nothing is to acquiesce in Netanyahu’s further attempts to turn the U.S. Congress into the venue for a campaign rally. The minimally non-partisan move would be to place an ad—say a full-page in the Sunday New York Times—asking Boehner, Netanyahu, or both to avoid putting Israel in the middle of the partisan battle and to call off the speech. It would be reassuring to see a list of major and minor Jewish organizations as signatories. I'm not holding my breath.
May I suggest a similar ad—signed by prominent American Jews, as individuals, if Jewish organizations beg off—on a full page of the weekend edition of the mass-circulation Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot?
Let me address potential signatories directly: If you worry that this is interference in Israeli elections, Netanyahu and Boehner have left you no choice: Silence is also interference. And if you are scared of appearing too dovish, heaven forbid, remember that in opposing the mischief afoot by the prime minister and the House speaker, you are merely agreeing with Ariel Sharon's former adviser and the ex-head of the Mossad.