It’s been only two years since Obama visited Israel, but it seems like a lifetime. Then, all the usual symbols and rhetoric were out for all to see – red carpets, state reception, hugs and smiles, and of course – flamboyant expressions including the most flowery descriptions about the relationship between the two countries: “shared fate”, “an enduring friendship”, “everlasting alliance”.
That’s right. Despite the deep mistrust between the American administration and the Israeli government at the time, and the frozen relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu – on the surface, everything was simply hunky dory.
That’s how the two sides have always behaved. Dirty laundry was never displayed in public. This was, is, and always will be – very important for Israel. The appearance of a strong relationship with the world’s strongest power is an Israeli strategic interest.
This appearance no longer exists. It may reappear in the future, but presently – there is no effort from the American side to even show affinity with Israel. Netanyahu’s insistence to appear in front of the American Congress this coming Tuesday, to blast the deal being brokered with Iran over its nuclear program, caused Obama’s administration to take off the gloves and publicly criticize its closest ally, including blatantly questioning Netanyahu’s judgment and political motivations.
Timing aside (two weeks before the elections here in Israel), I have to join the voices in Israel and the U.S. criticizing Netanyahu’s decision to make the journey to Washington D.C. despite growing criticism and a dubious outcome.
Let’s say we take Netanyahu’s word for it, and believe him when he says he is merely fulfilling his duty as Prime Minister and trying to prevent a very bad deal with Iran that will endanger Israel’s security. But surely, the damage wrought by his decision to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation trumps any possible benefits?
Firstly, since foreign policy in the U.S. is almost solely the prerogative of the President, who in this case has already expressed that he will cast a veto on any decision by Congress against the deal with Iran, it is not clear what exactly Netanyahu hopes to actually gain from the speech. Congress will of course applause Netanyahu’s words on Tuesday, but at the end of the day, Obama has the final say in these matters.
Secondly, the damage to Israel’s image in the U.S. cannot be discounted. True – as the Gallop survey showed last week – Israel enjoys a great deal of sympathy among Americans. Still, there is such a thing as overplaying a hand. When all is said and done, Netanyahu’s visit and the involvement in American politics will leave a bad taste. This meddling, and its repercussions, are what brought AIPAC to try and convince Netanyahu not to make the speech.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the political damage to Israel’s relationship with the U.S. is deep and will surely influence future decisions to support Israel during Obama’s remaining two years in power. The public verbal attacks by American officials against Netanyahu are just the tip of the iceberg. The words of National Security Adviser Rice and Secretary of State Kerry are calculated and planned, and one can only imagine the rhetoric behind closed doors. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a scenario in which the U.S. holds back, or scales down, its support – militarily, economically, and diplomatically.
Want to convince Congress and the American public that this deal with Iran must not happen? Fine. Meet with leading Congressmen, make a speech in front of AIPAC . Why insist on a scorched earth tactic? Call me a skeptic or a Netanyahu-hater, but I have the feeling that the Churchill complex is playing a part again in Netanyahu’s decision making.
I’m reminded of a story about Meir Dagan, ex-Mossad chief, and Netanyahu meeting after one of the latter’s speeches in front of the U.N. General Assembly. “Did you see the speech” Netanyahu supposedly asked Dagan. “No”, answered he, “I don’t much care for these types of speeches”. “Why? Churchill made similar speeches” answered the Israeli Prime Minister. “Yes, but Churchill always coupled words with actions” answered Dagan.
Dear Mr. Prime Minister – be wise, not just.