U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to ‘President’ Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress comes at a critical period as Republicans have taken over both the House of Representatives and the Senate and are determined to reverse almost every law adopted during Barack Obama’s presidency. From immigration and healthcare to financial oversight, Republicans see an opportunity to reshape the national agenda, but none is more contentious than Obama’s policy on Iran. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz summed it up correctly: “[Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to show the president once and for all who really rules in Washington, who is the landlord both here and there.”
Boehner’s invite to Netanyahu is a clear signal, if any were needed, as to who is calling the shots for Congress when it comes to Iran and foreign policy in general. Critically, Netanyahu was invited just a day after President Obama declared his intention in the State of the Union Address to veto any Republican bill that might impact the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. As it turns out, the idea for the invite originated from the machinations of the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who called on House Speaker Boehner and the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to provide the stage for a joint session. In evaluating the current controversy with Netanyahu’s speech in Washington, Yossi Sarid said: “If in the past, we ran the show from behind the scenes, now we’re doing it openly, from center stage. And if you forget our donations, the wellspring will run dry.”
The ambassador would not have acted independently and more fingers are pointing at Netanyahu’s desire for collaborating with far-right Republicans to push the U.S. into imposing harsher sanctions on Iran,despite voices of opposition to such an approach coming from Mossad, Israel’s own intelligence and security agency. It is expected that Netanyahu will take the opportunity for a third speech to a joint session of Congress to lecture Obama, and by extension, the American public, about what should be done about Iran and the Middle East in general. In evaluating the current development in Washington, Sarid observed in a Haaretz article: “If in the past, we ran the show from behind the scenes, now we’re doing it openly, from center stage. And if you forget our donations, the wellspring will run dry.”
In retrospect, the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama was broken a long time ago. As it stands, the Israeli prime minister made it a point to publically oppose President Obama’s initiatives in the Middle East, and insulted U.S. administration officials on numerous occasions, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Hagel. From the very first days of Obama’s presidency, Netanyahu was confident of unconditional Republican support and played his political cards within a fractured American political landscape. It is not a secret that Netanyahu supported Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election, and hinted to American supporters for funding to be directed to him. For Netanyahu, Romney was a much better ideological match to Israeli policies than President Obama, who shifted the U.S. approach away from the failed and more hawkish neo-conservative Republican strategies prevalent during the years of former President George W. Bush.
Netanyahu’s 2012 support for Romney caused resentment within the Democratic Party hierarchy, and certainly in the Obama administration. Boehner’s invite introduces Israeli political priorities and agendas as a central driving force into a highly contentious American political environment at a critical point when there is a newly elected Republican-controlled Congress facing a Democratic president in his last two years in office. The Republicans and Boehner are more than happy to play along with Netanyahu’s strategy, considering the loathing and outright animosity they display toward everything Obama represents.
As it stands, Netanyahu’s speech is set for March 3, and so far it has generated considerable controversy due in large part to it being without any prior knowledge or approval by the White House. More interestingly, the invite to the Republican-controlled joint congressional session inserts Netanyahu directly into the Washington stalemate and consolidates his political stand against, or in confrontation with, President Obama and the Democrats in general. A number of Democrats responding to pressure from their constituencies declared their intention not to attend Netanyahu’s speech, prompting Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America to declare: “We will, of course, be publicly condemning any Democrats who don’t show up for the speech – unless they have a doctor’s note.”
Had it been up to the Republicans and their party leadership, they would certainly favor a “President Netanyahu” for America over the currently twice-elected President Obama in the White House. At the same time, Netanyahu would prefer to have the current U.S. Congress as his own Knesset, considering the unconditional level of support he can count on from Republicans as well as a good number of Democrats. It would be appropriate and fitting for Boehner, the speaker of “America’s Knesset,” to introduce “President” Netanyahu to address his majority party in Washington on what should be done and on foreign policy priorities. We are not sure how this will develop, but it will be the first time in America’s history that a representative of a foreign state is granted such power and access at the expense of a sitting, elected U.S. president.
The speech and invitation must be further contextualized with reference to the upcoming Israeli elections and the 2016 U.S. presidential contest. On the one hand, Netanyahu is facing an election in Israel on March 10, and taking a tough stance against Arabs, Muslims and Iran is a cardinal point for an Israeli electorate that has moved steadily to the extreme right. On the other hand, the Republicans are beginning to set up the machinery for the 2016 presidential election, and Obama’s Affordable Care Act healthcare law, national security, war on terrorism and immigration will be the bread and butter of the campaign trail. Republicans are hoping, with Netanyahu’s help, to utilize these issues to drive independents and some Democrats into their fold.
The Republicans’ diplomatic dig at Obama through the uncoordinated invitation to “President” Netanyahu in the closing two years of Obama’s presidency is intended to create a rift between Jewish Americans and the Democratic Party, thus shifting a traditional Jewish Democratic base of support to the Republican column. It is important to note that Jewish Americans have historically voted Democratic, and President Obama garnered 78 percent support from American Jews. Thus, this has to be seen as another sinister ploy by a Republican Party ready to deploy “wedge” issues to drive voters into its fractured lap. Jewish American voters and funding is critical to both parties, and support for Israel is a litmus test during political campaigns, which translates into a Republican strategy to court and push Jewish voters more to the right and away from their traditional Democratic voting patterns.
In addition, the invite to “President” Netanyahu is a further signal to a domestic Republican base that is highly critical of Obama’s foreign policy on Iran and the Middle East in general, but not ready to embrace the Tea Party and Republican far-right policies. The ongoing negotiations with Iran and the serious problems in Iraq and Syria cannot be solved simply by either military strikes alone or the re-deployment of troops, as some Republicans are calling for in Congress. It is hoped, or rather wished, that “President” Netanyahu will make a difference by articulating a robust or more militaristic policy option that Republicans can use to politically bludgeon the Democrats with in the coming two years, and certainly during what will definitely be a most contentious 2016 elections.