How Will Obama Punish Netanyahu?

The White House is rightly apoplectic about Netanyahu’s address to Congress, but will Obama or Hillary sack up and let the Israelis know that it’s time for a new PM?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Here’s a fun little exercise for you. Go Google the phrase (in quotes) “the Republican senator from Israel.” It will return you 5,600 results. Maybe that isn’t that many in the scheme of things, but it’s still noteworthy that the overwhelming majority of them are about one guy, and no, it’s not John McCain or Lindsey Graham.

How far does Bibi Netanyahu think he can push Barack Obama before the president says “enough”? Think back to 2010, when Israel announced plans to build new settlements while Joe Biden was visiting the country. Even Hillary Clinton called that one “insulting.” There were other little digs, but then the WTF moment came when Netanyahu basically endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012, you will recall, inviting Romney and Sheldon Adelson over to Israel that summer. After Obama won, both sides assured their publics that all was still smelling of roses. We all knew those assurances were false, but at least they bothered to make them.

But now, in the wake of the prime minister’s scandalous acceptance of Speaker John Boehner’s scandalous invitation to speak before Congress without even giving the White House notification, the false assurances are fewer and even more half-hearted. And into the mix we’re getting background statements like this one, from an Obama official last Friday: “We thought we’ve seen everything. But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”

The administration isn’t the only party here that’s steamed. As Josh Marshall noted Sunday, no less a figure than Michael Oren—the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who was appointed by Netanyahu—thinks the speech should be canceled. Dianne Feinstein, one of the AIPAC-iest senators in Washington for many long years, says the speech—about Iran’s nuclear ambitions—is actually having the effect of making congressional Democrats lean against a new, tougher Iran-sanctions bill. Obama has said he’d veto it. Most Democrats, like most Republicans but to a lesser degree, side with Israel over Obama. But maybe not now.

Yes, yes, it’s not as if Obama is totally blameless here—right after he was first elected, he tried to pressure Netanyahu hard on settlements, and he quickly learned that on the issue of Israel, he wasn’t going to be bringing much change to Washington at all. But that’s now six years ago. Bibi has been kicking sand in the administration’s face ever since. So maybe change is finally coming to Washington on this issue—but it’s Netanyahu who is forcing the change, through his obnoxious behavior.

But the question remains: What price can the administration make Netanyahu pay? That’s less clear, alas. It does, however, have some options.

First, as pertains to the upcoming Israeli election: Obviously, Obama wants Netanyahu to lose. But equally obviously, he and his administration can’t do or say anything that appears to “meddle” directly in the election. A) that would be as bad as what Netanyahu did in 2012, and B) it would almost surely invite a pro-Bibi backlash among swing voters in Israel and help him coast to reelection.

But if this controversy builds, as it’s sure to, and if Netanyahu stands pat and delivers the address, as he vowed Sunday he would, maybe the main thing the administration has to do is stay out of the way. A few more rebukes from a few more Feinstein types will certainly send the message to voters in Israel that their sitting prime minister has placed in grave jeopardy the one global relationship that keeps their country alive. Administration officials can, of course, privately prod such types to criticize Bibi, provided news of their efforts doesn’t leak.

If the winds are blowing in an anti-Bibi direction as the March 17 vote approaches (the polls right now are close and somewhat contradictory), then it will be up to administration spokesman Josh Earnest to let himself be asked about the election and to choose his words very carefully as he somehow conveys the message that if Israeli voters will be doing their country a big favor if they dump Netanyahu. There are ways.

Hillary Clinton could play a pivotal role here if she chooses to. To my knowledge she hasn’t spoken publicly thus far on the Bibi speech. If she were to go public and say something, anything, even one of those understated-isn’t-the-word-for-it adjectives of which she’s so fond, she would be reminding Israelis: Oh yeah, she’s likely to be the next president, so it’s not just Obama’s remaining two years we need to worry about, but maybe the next ten, and if she’s had it with Bibi, maybe we really should switch gears. It’s worth remembering here that her husband helped knock Netanyahu out in 1999, when Clintonista James Carville advised Ehud Barak’s winning campaign.

There are other pressure points beyond the election. Europe is stiffening sanctions against Israel, as Ha’aretz reported last November. The normal role of the United States here would be to talk quietly to its European allies and say, “go easy here and there.” Maybe we’d be less inclined to do that now. Down the road, there’s the question—never discussed here in the States, but mentioned several times to me when I was in Israel last fall—of the UN veto. Forty-plus times since 1972, the United States has blocked UN measures that would have either sanctioned Israel or expressed support for the Palestinian statehood cause. For the United States to stop that practice would be, as a well-informed friend of mine put it, “the nuclear button.” I wouldn’t look for that anytime soon, but if Netanyahu is reelected and the obstreperous behavior continues, some kind of change in our Middle East posture at the UN seems hardly out of the question.

Israel has every right to be concerned about Iran becoming a nuclear power. Of course it’s rarely mentioned in these debates that there is today just one nuclear power in the Middle East, and that’s Israel itself. That’s relevant here because, as nonproliferation expert Joe Cirincione told The Washington Post in December 2013, “At some point, for its own security, Israel will have to take the bombs out of the basement and put them on the negotiating table.” A second nuclear power in the region almost surely hastens the arrival of that point. So existential threat from a nuclear Iran is likely not Israel’s sole worry here.

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But accepting an invitation like this is hardly the right way to express those concerns. The Republican senator from Israel is taunting the President of the United States. And someday, there will indeed be a price. Let’s just hope it’s one that only Netanyahu and those on the Israeli and American right, and not the people of Israel and Palestine, have to pay.