Facing growing international isolation and an accelerating Palestinian campaign for United Nations statehood recognition in September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be about to try a gambit Israeli leaders have employed for decades: using friends in Congress to erect firewalls against presidential pressure on the Jewish state.
His invitation by Republican leaders to address a joint meeting of Congress in late May is a “win-win” maneuver for GOP leaders, said University of California-Fullerton political scientist Raphael Sonenshein. And there are some in Netanyahu’s government who think a rousing welcome on Capitol Hill could help blunt any new U.S. initiative as the Obama administration tries to derail the back-door Palestinian statehood push.
But playing a willing Congress against a president rarely affects U.S. foreign policy except around the margins, many analysts argue. And when the effort is too overtly partisan, it can chill personal relations between Israeli and U.S. leaders.
“Congress rarely changes foreign policy,” Sonenshein said. “Having some influence in Congress behind the scenes is always valuable for other countries, but it could be a riskier in this case if Netanyahu takes a political approach. He did this with Bill Clinton, and it cost him his job.”
Conditions are different this time around, Sonenshein pointed out, but “it would be a risk for Netanyahu to play himself as the Republicans’ best friend in Israel, when the odds are pretty good the Democratic president will get re-elected.”
Reports in the Israeli press indicate that Netanyahu is under mounting pressure from some in his inner circle to make a dramatic offer during his speech that could blunt the momentum of the Palestinian effort, but he is under equally strong pressure from right-wing coalition partners to avoid any new concessions — and to use the Republican-controlled House, in particular, to watch his back.
Where President Barack Obama stands as these forces converge is far from clear.
The administration faces intensifying pressure from European allies to restart long-stalled U.S. diplomatic efforts. It also faces the threat, that lacking progress, many Europeans will support the Palestinian effort at the United Nations.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that Obama will speak in “greater detail about America’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks.” A New York Times story last week portrayed the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government as locked in a “bizarre diplomatic race over who will be the first to lay out a new proposal to reopen the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.”
Washington insiders describe that as an exaggeration; the administration remains torn between its fear that without an assertive new U.S. initiative the Palestinian United Nations end run will be almost impossible to thwart — and its belief that the chances any such initiative would succeed are very low.
With Obama’s re-election campaign just gearing up and Middle East turmoil spreading, the political stars may be more aligned against any risky new U.S. initiative than ever.
The result of that internal debate could well be another presidential speech on the subject — but no significant diplomatic initiative.
Writing in Foreign Policy last week, former U.S. peace process diplomat Aaron David Miller argued that “[t]he wise former secretary of state, George Shultz, used to say that when you don’t have a policy, the pressure builds to give a speech. These days, that appears to be the focal point of the current efforts on all three sides. In short, if you can’t or won’t do, then at least talk.”
The result, he said, could be yet another high-profile speech on the need for urgent action to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but little new action.
Netanyahu had originally planned to make a major policy address to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in late May.
Now, thanks to an invitation by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), he will speak to a joint meeting of Congress, a venue that guarantees a rousing welcome by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said speculation about what Netanyahu will offer is just that — speculation.
“At this stage, we just don’t know,” he said. “But basically, I think that there is a feeling people do not want this speech to go to waste.”
Reports in the Israeli press suggest Netanyahu is being pushed by some in his government to offer a pullout of IDF forces from major portions of the West Bank and a declaration setting interim borders of a Palestinian state — proposals the Palestinians have already rejected.
Makovsky said the focus should be more on the Obama administration, and what it can do beyond simply scheduling another presidential speech.
“This is an opportunity for the administration to do some old-fashioned diplomacy and work to get both sides to cross some thresholds,” he said.
An administration preoccupied with the upheavals across the Arab world needs to make a “major push” to generate “synchronized” moves by Israel and the Palestinians. That would be the only way, Makovsky said, to avert the disaster of UN recognition of Palestinian statehood in September.
The administration should press Netanyahu to spell out in his speech that while Israel will not return to the pre-1967 borders, those borders will “be the baseline for calculations” in setting final borders, with settlement blocs annexed by Israel offset by land swaps from within Israel, Makovsky said.
The Palestinians, he said, must be pushed to accept Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” an acknowledgment that “would address Israel’s key fear — that Palestinians will never accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East, irrespective of the extent of Israeli territorial concessions,” Makovsky wrote in a Politico article last week. “It is important that Israelis not fear that territorial concessions will render Israel more vulnerable rather than more secure. Mutual recognition can only be a credible part of a peace package if both sides commit to a vigorous public peace education campaign — making clear that each has a historic attachment to the land, and the land must be shared.”
But it is far from clear whether an administration still bruised from its initial forays in Middle East peacemaking, facing a new war in Libya and an old one in Afghanistan and beset with domestic difficulties has the political resources or the will for another high-risk Middle East initiative.
The political risks for the administration may be underlined by Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu.
With the 2012 campaigns already under way, the Republicans have ramped up their usual effort to portray the Democrats as soft on Israel or downright unfriendly. Republican sources argue the invitation wasn’t mean as a political maneuver, but some privately agree that it will be used in GOP campaigns in Jewish districts.
Barry Rubin, director of the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs Center, said it’s not about partisanship, but about going to a Congress in which strong support for Israel cuts across party lines.
“If Obama’s administration repeatedly betrays promises made to Israel, Israel must go bipartisan,” he said. “This is not a partisan maneuver at all; this is bringing in Congress where Israel has strong support among Democrats as well. It is an institutional not a party-oriented tactic.
“Incidentally,” Rubin continued, “Israel’s response is typical of dozens of countries — start the list with Saudi Arabia and Jordan — on every continent that know they cannot trust the U.S. government to help them, defend them or fulfill its commitments.”
But for Netanyahu, accepting the invitation was consistent with longstanding efforts — his own and by his Likud predecessors — to use Congress, and Republican leaders in particular, as a bulwark against administrations too eager to pressure the Jewish state.
“In Israel, Likud prime ministers have traditionally turned to Congress” when faced with White House pressure, said Steve Rosen, a former top official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who now works with the Middle East Forum.
The Boehner offer and GOP efforts to use the issue to beat up on Democrats next year puts Israeli leaders “in a bit of a dilemma,” Rosen said. “The Republicans, particularity Boehner and [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor have offered a wedge issue. The Israelis are walking on eggs around this. On one hand, they value their Republican allies in Congress; on the other, they don’t want Israel to be a partisan issue. They’re not enthusiastic about a strategy built on using Israel as a wedge issue.”
With polls looking increasingly upbeat for Obama in next year’s election, Israeli leaders are also dealing with the possibility they may have to work with Obama for another four years — when the president will be largely free from the political constraints of another election.
And “even in the best case, it’s very difficult for Congress to have much control in foreign policy,” Rosen said.
That may be the bottom line to next month’s speech: while Netanyahu is likely to get a political boost at home from a rousing congressional reception, it is unlikely to dramatically affect an Obama administration whose evolving policy will be shaped more by events in the region and perceptions of the potential for success than by congressional politics.