Netanyahu's Blunder

Israeli Prime Minister will make the biggest blunder of his professional career tomorrow when he addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, thumbing his nose at the incumbent President and, worse, opening a hole in the dam of bipartisan support for strong U.S.-Israeli relations.

Political leaders are always ill advised to meddle in the internal politics of other nations. This is especially the case for a country like Israel which needs a strong relationship with the United States, no matter which party is in power. Plenty of Jewish Republicans are upset with Netanyahu’s bungle, and only marginally less upset with Speaker John Boehner for going along with it.

Internal political divisions and debates are often opaque to the people engaged in them, let alone to someone from a different country and a different political culture. But, it should be obvious to everyone, including Netanyahu, that American politics is exceedingly divided at the moment. For years, the farm bill sailed through Congress with bipartisan support. Not anymore. The Israeli government, any Israeli government, wants U.S. aid to Israel to remain like the farm bill was, not what it is now.

This need for a strong, candid alliance is made more compelling, not less, by the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear capability. I can think of no single thing that would be worse, even in that part of the world. ISIS may garner headlines with its grisly executions, but they cannot exterminate millions of people the way a nuclear-armed Iran could. It is clear that Mr. Netanyahu does not trust Obama’s negotiating skill, and he is right not to trust those skills. Mr. Obama does not think Netanyahu’s bluster is constructive, and he is right about that bluster. But, they need each other and both should rise to the moment, put aside their personal dislike for one another, and demonstrate to the mullahs that they stand together in opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Alas, neither man is deficient when it comes to their ego and neither appears willing to back down. Hence the embarrassment that will happen tomorrow.

Allies are often problematic to be sure. Divergences of view point can cloud shared commitments. But, in dealing with a two-party, or multi-party, state, it is vital for any given government to avoid getting drawn into the partisan fighting and keep the foreign relations of the two states at a higher level. This is not always easy. It would be hard to imagine a stronger relationship between two leaders than that forged between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, at the time, the Republican Party was the party of isolationism, so Churchill had every reason to support Roosevelt and hope for his continued success at the polls. But, that did not prevent Churchill from placing a call to Wendell Willkie on one of his trips to the U.S. In the event, the call almost caused a problem because the operator misunderstood and placed the call to the White House. Churchill thought he was calling Willkie. Roosevelt picked up. It took the two a moment to realize that the call had been misplaced by the operator. Churchill took great pains to make sure no offense had been given. Interestingly, Mr. Willkie was at the center of another diplomatic intrusion by a foreign potentate into American politics: His affair with Madame Chaing Kai-shek almost had disastrous consequences for U.S. China relations but Sister Death took him off the stage.  

House Speaker John Boehner has committed a blunder too. The rule of foreign non-interference in domestic politics has a reverse corollary: Never sublimate the national interest to a partisan political goal. What does Boehner hope to achieve? Does he hope to drum up opposition to whatever deal the U.S. negotiates with Iran? If so, this is a clumsy way to go about it: If there is a deal, and it fails to pass the Senate, Iran will proceed accordingly. Are the Republicans prepared to start a land war with Iran in order to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon? If so, let them say so, and let them explain if we would then consider ISIS an ally, which they surely would be in such a scenario. It is one thing for our two political parties to have principled differences on foreign policy. But, those differences get decided at election time and the leaders of the Congress and the President all have a vested interest, the national interest, in solving such differences before they engage the world.

This is not the first time in history that political leaders have made this mistake. In 1711, the Tory government entered into secret negotiations with France. They also decided to terminate the Duke of Marlborough’s command. They even brought charges of peculation against him, which passed the House of Commons on the strength of their party whips, not the strength of their case. Marlborough, of course, embodied the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV. He had led the combined armies, saved the Holy Roman Empire at Blenheim, and the Dutch frontier at Ramillies and Oudenarde. In addition to leading the armies, he was Queen Anne’s plenipotentiary for all diplomatic dealings with the Allies. When the Tories took power, the allied governments registered their concern. When they sacked Marlborough, the Allies were indignant. The Tories, however, commanded majorities in both houses of parliament and enjoyed the Queen’s favor. They abandoned the field and signed a separate peace deal with France, all because they wanted to maintain their control in London. But, the Queen was old and childless. When she died three years later, the throne passed to George, the Elector of Hanover, one of the countries in the alliance the Tories had shamefully abandoned and who had served with Marlborough during the war. The Tories were quickly ousted from power.

What is especially worrisome about Bibi’s blunder is that it comes at a time when there is an increasingly noisy anti-Israel left in the U.S. Most regrettably, the anti-Israeli left is especially pronounced in certain sectors of the Christian churches. And ideologues of the left, like ideologues of the right, are easy pickings for those who wish to promote gross evils. This weekend, a Catholic activist approvingly posted a video from a group called Jewish Voice for Peace. If your heart is warmed by this propaganda, you are the kind of person Leni Riefenstahl had in mind when she touted the virtues of the Reich or whom Mussolini understood to be his audience when he stood on the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia. Propaganda works some times. It can only be beaten back and denied efficacy by productive efforts among the morally mature. If Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Boehner do not start acting like grown-ups, this kind of nonsense will seem plausible to more and more people. Today, such extreme anti-Israeli attitudes are a kind of fetish for the morally and/or intellectually unserious few, but tomorrow such attitudes could grow into something stronger and more dangerous, something capable of drawing one of the two major parties away from our nation’s vital commitment to Israel. And that should scare everyone, especially the leadership of our two countries and especially Mr. Netanyahu.



Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here