Yesterday, Speaker John Boehner announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted his invitation to address a joint session of Congress. In what reporters are calling “breach of protocol,” the White House appears to have been blindsided, receiving notification only shortly before the news became public. The decision to invite Netanyahu for a speech addressing the Iranian threat, and announce it a day after President Obama’s State of the Union opposed new Iran sanctions legislation, has been widely (and correctly) viewed as a Republican maneuver against the President. It is precisely for that reason that Netanyahu’s acceptance of that invitation represents a serious strategic blunder.
For Netanyahu, it is easy to understand the appeal of the invitation. He perceives American negotiators as too eager and too credulous, and he has watched as the specter of Sunni extremism, particularly the Islamic State, has sapped attention from the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. In Syria and Ukraine, he senses a general weakening of American commitments abroad. He believes Congress and the public share his dark view of Iranian intentions, and it suits his ego to see himself rallying the American people to force a spine into their flimsy administration. It also does not hurt that delivering this speech, his third to a joint session, would put him a category of world leaders that includes only Winston Churchill.
Netanyahu, however, is no Churchill. The primary motivation for his acceptance of Speaker Boehner’s invitation is not Israel’s welfare---something his speech will likely harm---but petty domestic politics. With Israeli elections fast approaching, delivering an indictment against Iran on the floor of Congress bolsters Netanyahu’s credentials as a stalwart defender of Israeli security. It focuses Israeli public debate on defense issues where his Likud party is strongest. And most of all, the image of the entire American Congress on its feet cheering him will do much to blunt his opponents’ charges that Netanyahu’s personal arrogance and political hawkishness have jeopardized Israel’s strategic relationships abroad. With these potential political dividends, it is no accident that Netanyahu acted quickly to reschedule the speech for just two weeks before Israelis head for the polls.
But while Netanyahu stands to gain personally, Israel itself stands to lose a great deal. In Congress, sanctions legislation already enjoys broad support, and those Democratic hold-outs whose votes could uphold a presidential veto are unlikely to be swayed by Republican-engineered slap at the President. And after the Israeli right has spent years accusing American governments of attempting to influence their domestic politics, Netanyahu’s cynical use of Congress as a campaign prop is hardly endearing. One hopes, of course, that our elected representatives will cast their votes purely on what they believe are the best interests of the American people. But one cannot discount the possibility that Netanyahu’s maneuver will actually make Democrats less cooperative.
In tweaking Democrats, Netanyahu is playing with fire. For decades, backing Israel has been the quintessential bipartisan issue. Resolutions expressing support for, and authorizing aid to, Israel are passed regularly with near-unanimity. Condemnations of its enemies are a sine qua non for a live political career. But in recent years, some fringe Democratic constituencies have begun to turn on Israel—viewing Israeli distrust, rather than Palestinian intransigence, as the core reason for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s stubborn persistence. Sensing an opening, Republicans have pounced, hoping to use Israel as a wedge that pushes Democrats onto the losing side of a key public debate.
For Republicans, partisan-ing Israel represents excellent politics; for Israel, it’s a strategic nightmare. Unless Republicans win every future presidential and congressional election, Israel will continue to rely heavily on Democratic support. Any Israeli prime minister who underestimates that truth does so at his country’s peril. What’s more, the aura of consensus that permeates political discussion of Israel is a key factor in preserving American popular support for the Jewish state. Elite opinion and public opinion exist in a mutually reinforcing symbiosis. The more that partisan cracks show in Washington, the more they filter down to the American people---and the bigger those cracks will grow. In a world that has become increasingly hostile to Israel’s interests, the creation of these fractures in America is something Israel can ill afford.
Boehner’s invitation offered Netanyahu the opportunity to choose between being a politician and becoming a statesman. He has made his choice; Churchill would be dismayed.