Tel Aviv — The awkward state of Israeli relations with the U.S. administration has been in the mix as an issue in the Israeli election campaign ever since the ruling coalition fell apart in December.
But the debate has moved into the campaign spotlight and is likely to remain there after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparked a new row with the White House by accepting a surprise invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress on Iran just two weeks before the election.
The planned address, expected to focus on the question of whether or not the U.S. should push for new sanctions, has been criticized across the political spectrum as a ploy to give the prime minister a boost for his re-election campaign and congressional Republicans a popular foil in their drive to attack the Obama administration’s handling of Iranian nuclear talks. Both the prime minister and the speaker were accused of cooking up the idea behind the back of the administration, and provoking White House anger at Israel.
Put on the defensive, Netanyahu warned this week that an agreement between world powers and Iran that would leave the Islamic Republic as a nuclear threshold state is looming, and that it his obligation to “go to anyplace to voice Israel’s diplomatic position and to defend its future.”
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer echoed that argument, saying at an Israel Bonds gathering in Boca Raton, Fla., it was the prime minster’s “sacred duty” to appear in the most powerful legislature in the world to defend Israel. He added that “the world is more dangerous for Jews when they are silent.”
The move makes sense for the prime minister because two weeks before Israel’s election, the trip to the U.S. will focus Israeli attention on the threat of Iran and away from socioeconomic problems of Israelis, where he suffers from weak support, said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political blogger. The White House, which said it was blindsided by the Boehner invitation, has refused to meet with the prime minister, citing a long-held policy of staying out of the Israeli election, a snub that will likely tarnish the visit. Schneider and other Israeli commentators accused Netanyahu of hurting ties with the U.S. administration for political gain.
“His one goal is to win the election, and to do it he has to talk only about Iran. … Talking about the economy is bad for him, so he’s avoiding it,” she said. “He doesn’t mind blowing everything else up along the way,” she said, referring to the ties with the Obama administration in the remaining two year’s of the president’s term.
Schneider also accused Boehner of meddling in Israeli politics. “What he just did is stepping into our election, and I find it very rude,” she said.
Israeli media gave prominent attention to criticism against Netanyahu’s voiced on Fox News — which is normally sympathetic to Israel — by Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith as evidence that the prime minister’s trip is not playing well in the U.S. either. On Tuesday, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a leading Democratic proponent of stiffer sanctions, withdrew support for passing a sanctions resolution until late March. Observers argue that the withdrawal of support from some congressional Democrats is proof that the prime minister’s planned visit to Congress might be backfiring.
If the address to a joint session of Congress could tip the scales toward a harder U.S. line on Iran, absorbing a hit to relations with the U.S. administration could be justified, said Jonathan Rhynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “Because, according to many opinions, this agreement is going to be damaging.”
However, with Democratic support on sanctions eroding, the trip looks more and more like a gambit that will undermine support for Israel among Democrats. Late last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi complained that the four leaders of Congress had not been consulted.
“This is just showmanship that chips away at bipartisanship for nothing,” said Rhynhold. He added that the criticism of Netanyahu coming from all sides could erode support during the election. “If the echoes of that message filter into the mainstream consciousness, it will be a blow to Bibi’s standing on what is considered his home turf. The public thinks he is the strongest on foreign affairs and defense.”
In the debate over foreign policy, Netanyahu has an advantage because most of the public agrees with his claim that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas bears most of the responsibility for the collapsed peace talks in 2014. But, sensing a Netanyahu vulnerability on national security, election opponents are now talking about Israel’s growing international isolation and Netanyahu’s handling of ties with the U.S., which are seen by many Israelis as crucial to survive. Rhynhold said the Bibi-Boehner move could swing votes away from Netanyahu.
“It is extremely hard for the center and the left to move any votes away from the right over foreign and security policy,” said Rhynhold. However, U.S.-Israel relations “trumps the divide.”
Some top American Jewish leaders, such as Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, have also criticized the Israeli prime minister for accepting the Boehner invite. Others in Israel said that they too were blindsided by the announcement.
“Right now we’re still in shock mode; we’re trying to figure out where the pieces are falling,” said an American Jewish official familiar with the Israeli-U.S. relations. The move makes our “lives more complicated.”