Support for Israel is genuinely bipartisan in Washington; so close, in fact, that it’s been said that the Democrats and Republicans in America strictly mirror divisions in Israeli politics between left and right. But that’s too simplistic. Mitt Romney and John Kerry, for instance, both have close and longstanding ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it’s not uncommon for politicians from each country to weigh in on races in the other.
But it is fair to say that, these days, there is a particularly close connection between the Republicans and the Likud. After all, Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson is one of Netanyahu’s most avid supporters. And if the ties weren’t obvious already, House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement Tuesday that he’s invited Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress on February 11 makes the link perfectly clear (PDF). He’s giving Netanyahu the chance to bask in the full glow of the Washington spotlight just weeks before the Israeli elections on March 17.
There are three takeaways from this ploy that are almost as stunning as they are obvious:
First, Boehner’s invitation is motivated as much by hostility to Obama and to his Iran policy as by a desire to reelect Netanyahu as prime minister. The president’s remarks on Iran in the State of the Union Address on Monday night were short and, to Republican and Israeli ears, not very sweet. Instead of at least acknowledging the fact that a bipartisan effort on sanctions helped pressure Iran to the negotiating table, Obama dismissed Republican concerns about Iran’s behavior and said flat out that he’d veto any additional sanctions.
Tuesday morning Speaker Boehner wasn’t real happy about that. The president’s “exact message to us was, ‘Hold your fire,’” Boehner complained. “He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran. Two words: Hell no! We’re going to do no such thing.”
The American Speaker said that the Israeli Prime Minister would brief the joint meeting on the threat posed by Iran and by “radical Islam,” a term the president and his administration seem reluctant even to use.
That takes us to the second point: Boehner is using Netanyahu as much as Netanyahu is using the invitation. It’s not at all clear, of course, where the idea of the invite originated. It doesn’t strain the bounds of credulity to imagine it arose from a quiet suggestion by Israel or its prominent supporters here at home. But, in any case, Netanyahu can rally support for the Republican mantra that Iran is the region’s dangerous bad boy, and he’s virtually guaranteed a rousing reception among both parties.
This is Netanyahu’s third address before Congress. The first, in July 1996, took place with the Republicans in control of both Houses and occurred right after his election victory over Shimon Peres—a contest the Clinton Administration tried to influence in Peres’s favor. The second visit in May 2011 occurred with the Democrats in control of the Senate and the Republicans the House, and it proved to be a particularly warm bipartisan reception, especially when compared with the very frosty Obama-Netanyahu meeting during that visit.
So, from the standpoint of both Boehner and Bibi, this visit is a no-brainer.
Third, it will help Netanyahu in the March elections. But how much? As my grandmother used to say about her chicken soup, “It probably couldn’t hurt.” The Israeli pundits hammered Netanyahu’s visit to France in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre for what they believed to be a political exploitation of the Paris terrorist attacks. But that visit wasn’t well orchestrated. This one will be very carefully stage managed, complete with media interviews.
Will Netanyahu see the President and what will the political impact be if he does not?
There was a time when Bibi would come under fire for failing to nurture strong relations with the White House. But Obama, to say the least, isn’t popular in Israel. The White House carping that the Boehner invite was done improperly won’t help. And this election isn’t about Obama anyway. It’s really all about Bibi and, for the most part, his domestic policies.
The Washington excursion is just an extra flourish. Any time an incumbent has an opportunity to use the powers and prestige of office to burnish his prime ministerial image, particularly that close to an election, so much the better. It won’t be determinative. Israelis didn’t ride in on a bale of hay yesterday; they’re all too familiar with their politicians’ politicking. But in a close election, being feted and supported by your country’s key ally with a focus on critical security issues in an age of jihadi terror, well…..that’s not a bad photo op.
And if Bibi wins? We probably can expect to see more of him as both Democratic and Republican candidates for president of the United States fight for the title of Israel’s best friend.