President Barack Obama may have reached a George H.W. Bush moment in his long-simmering confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran’s nuclear program. And Netanyahu may be facing his own moment of truth.
With the White House’s unprecedented announcement that Obama will not meet with Netanyahu when the Israeli leader comes to Washington to deliver a speech before a joint meeting of Congress in March, the famously strained relations between the two men have reached an all-time low. The last time relations grew this toxic was back in 1991, when Yitzhak Shamir, then Israel’s right-wing leader, wanted $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees so Israel could absorb the large numbers of Jewish immigrants arriving from the former Soviet Union.
On the same day, Bush took the unusual step of going before television cameras in the White House press room to urge Americans to take his side on the loan guarantee issue and to let their representatives know where they stood. “I’m one lonely little guy” up against “some powerful political forces,” Bush said. It was a moment that stunned many in Washington, where defying Israel and its powerful lobby has been considered a third rail in American politics. It provoked accusations of anti-Semitism against Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, but in the end, the Israelis backed down and gave Bush the assurances he demanded.
For Obama, the issue is Netanyahu’s readiness to join the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill in its efforts to undercut negotiations toward a nuclear deal with Iran, which the president sees as a potential foreign policy legacy. The centerpiece of the Republican push is a bill authored by Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey that would slap new sanctions on Iran if current negotiations for a nuclear deal fail to reach an agreement by June 30. In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Obama threatened to veto the bill, saying it would “all but guarantee that diplomacy fails,” increasing the likelihood of another Middle East war.
Republican leaders upped the ante by inviting Netanyahu to appear before Congress, where he’s expected to make a full-throated argument for adopting a tougher line against Iran to extract more concessions from Tehran in the nuclear talks. In other words, Netanyahu will be urging lawmakers to vote in favor of the Kirk-Menendez bill in such numbers that they will command a veto-proof majority. Thursday’s White House announcement that Obama will not meet with Netanyahu while he’s in town is the first time in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations that the doors to the White House have been closed to a visiting Israeli prime minister.
What galls the White House is that Netanyahu didn’t even bother to inform the president that he was flying to Washington at Congress’s invitation. “The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “That certainly is how President Obama’s trips are planned when we travel overseas. So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”
Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner acknowledges that he didn’t consult with the White House either before issuing the invitation to Netanyahu. “The Congress can make this decision on its own,” he said.
Though some reports said the original idea for the Netanyahu invitation came from the Republicans, the Israeli daily Haaretz, quoting an unnamed Israeli official, said it grew out a suggestion put forward by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer during his talks over the past few weeks with Boehner and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to muster support for the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill. The Israeli Embassy did not respond to calls seeking comment on the report.
The breach between Obama and Netanyahu comes after years of tense relations and uncomfortable conversations marked by deep distrust. In addition to the Iran nuclear issue, they have clashed over Israel’s continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Obama opposes. During a visit to Washington in 2011, Netanyahu famously used a photo opportunity to lecture Obama against using Israel’s 1967 borders as a starting point for peace negotiations with the Palestinians. During the 2012 presidential election, Netanyahu openly supported Republican candidate Mitt Romney, giving him a lavish reception when Romney visited Israel during the campaign.
Boehner and McConnell now appear to be returning the favor with their invitation to Netanyahu, who is running for reelection in March.
Netanyahu’s scheduled March 3 appearance before Congress is not only an opportunity for him to boost his image among voters back home. It also amounts to yet another thumb in the eye for Obama and a political gift to Republicans, who will surely use Netanyahu’s remarks to bolster their own attacks on what they regard as Obama’s weak-kneed foreign policy.
“There is a serious threat that exists in the world, and the president last night kind of papered over it,” Boehner told reporters Wednesday, referring to Obama’s State of the Union speech. “The fact is, there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran.”
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress also will coincide with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference, when thousands of pro-Israel supporters will flood Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to vote for the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill. AIPAC often dispatches members who provide lawmakers with some of their biggest campaign donations, to underscore the seriousness of their demands—and the consequences if they are not met.
In announcing that Obama would not be meeting with Netanyahu, the White House cited the closeness of his visit to the Israeli elections, which are scheduled to take place two weeks later. But this is a policy that has been bent in the past, particularly when urgent foreign policy issues are involved.
“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” said National Security Council Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
She then added, “The president has been clear about his opposition to Congress passing new legislation on Iran that could undermine our negotiations and divide the international community. The president has had many conversations with the prime minister on this matter, and I am sure they will continue to be in contact on this and other important matters.”
In the meantime, the White House is mounting its own campaign to convince lawmakers not to vote for more Iran sanctions. Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have been on the phone to lawmakers, making their case. On Thursday, the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and the European Union—all of whom are deeply involved in both the nuclear negotiations with Iran and in enforcing the sanctions regime—gave Obama a boost with aWashington Post commentary titled “Give Diplomacy With Iran a Chance.”
“Maintaining pressure on Iran through our existing sanctions is essential,” they wrote. “But introducing new hurdles at this critical stage of the negotiations, including through additional nuclear-related sanctions legislation on Iran, would jeopardize our efforts at a critical juncture.” Noting that additional sanctions would only strengthen hardliners in Iran who oppose any nuclear deal, the authors went on to warn, “New sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far. Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.”
The administration’s efforts appear to be making some headway on Capitol Hill. Several Democratic senators who signed on as co-sponsors of the Kirk-Menendez bill are now having second thoughts. And new legislation is being drafted by Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Senator Barbara Boxer, D-California, that would reimpose sanctions on Iran if it violated any existing nuclear agreement, offering a moderate alternative to lawmakers who want to demonstrate their tough side but not upend the negotiations.
The Senate Banking Committee, which holds jurisdiction over sanctions legislation, was supposed to mark up the Kirk-Menendez measure this week. But it postponed consideration until next week, giving Menendez more time to nail down supporters. If, as expected, the panel approves the measure, McConnell has promised to bring the measure to the floor for a vote.
It’s then that the showdown between Obama and Israel will take place. If the Senate passes the bill and the House, as expected, follows suit, Obama says he’ll veto it. Congress would then need a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override any veto, an exceedingly difficult challenge to overcome.
In previous showdowns in Congress with the White House, Israel and its supporters have not fared well. In one of the most famous confrontations, Israel in 1981 tried to block President Ronald Reagan’s plan to sell AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia, sending its AIPAC supporters to Capitol Hill to stop the sale. But Reagan lobbied hard, and Congress approved the sale.
Such confrontations also have created unwelcome political fallout for Israeli leaders who sought them. After the elder Bush faced down Shamir over the loan guarantee dispute, Israeli voters tossed Shamir out of office in 1992, largely because he was perceived as having damaged the all-important U.S.-Israel relationship. As Netanyahu prepares for his address to Congress, that’s a political lesson he also might want to consider.