Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel concludes his third address before a joint meeting of Congress, 3 March 2015
The alliance that exists between the United States and Israel plays an outsize role in shaping American policy in the Middle East — so why is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now jeopardizing it?
The partnership is mutually advantageous. Israel receives billions of dollars in military and financial assistance from the US (as well as political advocacy through the United States’ seat on the United Nations Security Council) and Israel acts as the United States’ most important strategic partner in the Middle East, allowing the US to balance other competing interests and maintain a large presence in the region as a whole.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have just endangered the countries’ already strained partnership with his recent decision to accept an invitation to address a joint session of Congress without first speaking with President Obama about the opportunity.
Mr. Netanyahu’s political faux pas has resulted in an outpouring of negative sentiment from many within Washington, and has drawn attention from both Israeli and US media. The most notable and significant reaction has come from the Obama administration, which announced that although Mr. Netanyahu was welcome in Washington, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry would not be meeting with him. This reaction is a striking departure from the usual welcome Mr. Netanyahu receives on his visits to the United States, which typically involve personal and publicized meetings with the President and reassurances of the United States’ enduring support for Israel.
The White House justified its reaction to the Israeli Prime Minister not as a punishment for his bypassing the President, but as a diplomatic precaution considering the visit’s temporal proximity to the Israeli elections in March, claiming that the US did not want to be perceived as interfering with the electoral process by agreeing to host Mr. Netanyahu. This position falls in line with existing policy of denying meetings with global leaders around the time of their national elections. In practice, however, officials have made exceptions to this rule. Israel’s election will follow just two weeks after Mr. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March.
So, what is Mr. Netanyahu hoping to gain by accepting this invitation from the new Congress where Republicans now control both houses?
His ultimate goal will likely be to support the Republicans in their opposition to President Obama’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. He may use the opportunity to lobby Congress to enact further sanctions against Iran, although President Obama has repeatedly threatened to veto such a measure. In fact, it was Obama’s promise — made during his State of the Union address in January — to veto any effort by Congress to expand sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program that further exacerbated the current strain between the US and Israel.
Speaker John Boehner, who extended the invitation to Mr. Netanyahu, explained that he did so with the hope that the Israeli Prime Minister would speak to Congress about the “grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” As the effective leader of the most influential foreign policy lobby in Washington (Israel spends tens of millions of dollars on U.S. congressional candidates who support Israel), Mr. Netanyahu will likely be regarded positively by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
However, in his attempt to swing American political support in his favor, Mr. Netanyahu may have achieved the exact opposite. The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz quoted a “senior American official” on the issue, who stated: “We thought we’ve seen everything… But Bibi [Netanyahu] managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.” According to Arizona Senator John McCain, the U.S.-Israel relationship has “never been worse.” Such a strong reaction has brought US-Israel relations to a new low and threatens to inhibit Congress’ longstanding history of bipartisan support for Israel.
The significance of this incident’s timing should also not be overlooked; the situation between Mr. Netanyahu and the President developed in the same week as the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army. Typically, such a time of reflection would revitalize America’s resolution to support Israel, reminding them of the small nation’s historical and religious importance. However, Mr. Netanyahu’s breach of political protocol has marred what would normally be an opportunity to garner more American support for Israel.
After angering the most powerful officials of his most powerful international ally, Mr. Netanyahu has little to gain outside of a stronger nationalist voting base in Israel, invigorated by his defiance of Washington. This political ploy, however, may completely backfire if Israelis, concerned that Mr. Netanyahu’s irresponsible actions could alienate their most important ally, shift their vote away from the incumbent Prime Minister. Opinion polls from this past week indicate strong criticism from the Israeli left over his decision to circumvent President Obama and accept Speaker Boehner’s invitation.
Regardless of the vote’s outcome on March 17, Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to prioritize his reelection over the continued security of his most valuable alliance is incredibly short-sighted, and has complicated the task of repairing that alliance for the next prime minister.
Caroline Jones is a freshman at Brown University, where she hopes to study Government, Anthropology, and Environmental Science.
Image Attribution: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel Concludes his Third Address Before a Joint Meeting of Congress” by Speaker John Boehner, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0