PART ONE: JERUSALEM AND WASHINGTON.
News bulletin, New York Times, February 25, 2015:
WASHINGTON — Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, sharply criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Tuesday [February 14] over his plans to address a joint meeting of Congress next week, saying his actions had hurt his nation’s relationship with the United States.
As citizens of Israel go to the polls on March 17 to elect their Twentieth Knesset, a very great deal is at stake, not only for citizens of Israel, but for all of us.
“An Increasingly Nasty Grudge Match.”
So far, little attention is being given in our part of the world to the contest between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labour Party, the man presumed most likely to be called upon to form a government if Netanyahu stumbles. It is not as though Herzog were a non-entity. Herzog has a distinguished pedigree — son of a former Israeli President and grandson of a one-time Chief Rabbi of Ireland; he has been Leader of the Opposition since becoming Chairman of the Labour Party in November, 2013, having served previously in important Ministries under both Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak. Since the present election was called, he has improved prospects for victory by folding his Labor Party list into a broader list, Zionist Union, that includes Tzipi Livni’s Kadima as well as other leaderless factions on the left.
No one can pretend that the choice between Netanyahu &co and Herzog & and co is one between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Herzog insists that the economy is heading for the tanks and needs reforming on all fronts. As for external affairs, Herzog has denounced Netanyahu for effectively turning his back on the Peace Process and says that in doing so Netanyahu has, all by himself, caused the present diplomatic impasse with the United States while bringing down the outrage of civilized people everywhere. (“ ‘Netanyahu ‘loathes’ Obama, Israel’s opposition leader charges…,” The Times of Israel, (June 6, 2014.)
American Presidents and Israeli Elections.
Rather than focusing on the contest between these two leading Israeli politicians and their two causes journalists and editors have been talking about an ugly confrontation going on between Netanyahu and the President of the United States.
Since at least the days of Kennedy, American Presidents have involved themselves as much as they have dared in Israeli elections – sometimes, right up to their eyeballs. In a private meeting just prior to the Israeli election of May 17, 1999, President Clinton promised Ehud Barak to do everything possible to help out; when the election came; several of Bill Clinton’s own campaign consultants, were lent by him to the Barak campaign, from whose bosom they briefed the President with privileged details. Clinton directed major supporters of the Democratic Party to give generously to the Barak campaign. Stories reflecting the Clinton Government’s unhappiness with Netanyahu’s neglect of the path of peace were leaked to the media. But in his oily way, Clinton managed to carry off the impression of dignified impartiality when the press asked him about political affairs in Israel. (Paul Charles Merkley, American Presidents, Religion, and Israel, Praeger, 2004, p. 206.)
Obama versus Netanyahu.
Journalists who are unacquainted with history (is there another kind?) are giving out the impression that the current “feud” has suddenly appeared out of current events. But the difficulties began right at the beginning of Obama’s Presidency – and it is important to grasp that these difficulties follow from the largest possible differences of philosophy and as well from fundamental differences of character.
From the beginning, President Barack Obama, has been as fully-invested as Clinton ever was in care and feeding of Netanyahu’s opposition, but he has never thought it necessary or even appropriate to pretend impartiality in the contest; indeed, he has made it clear to all who will listen that anything that assists the candidacy of Netanyahu contributes to the ruin of his grand vision for mankind and is thus a form of treason to the best interests of American, Israelis and The World.
For years Obama has been dedicated to cutting Netanyahu down to size: that is, to a posture of deference such as befits the leader of a minor player in world affairs in the presence of the world’s leading statesman, the man who represents mankind’s best hope for peace.
The first of many personal encounters between the incumbent President of the United States and the incumbent Prime Minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu took place in May, 2009. It was a conspicuously awkward encounter. The news-site Arutzsheva, (Israel National News) recalled the event (nearly four years later) as “marked by a rude display of public disrespect by the American leader in which he abandoned the Israeli prime minister to wait in the White House while he went off to enjoy a private evening meal alone with his family. Netanyahu was subsequently escorted from the White House through a side door, rather than openly through the front — a further humiliation that left unpleasant memories with which both leaders have since been forced to contend.” [http://www.israelnationalnews.com, February 7, 2013.] The neglect of ceremonial courtesy on this occasion, whether intended or not, brought to most minds a stark contrast to the elegance of Obama’s meetings a few weeks earlier with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – before whom he bowed out of respect for “His Majesty”. These gestures, taken together, were meant to signal a revolutionary re-calculation of America’s foreign policy priorities.
Netanyahu’s Visit to Congress, March 3, 2015.
Glad to have an opportunity to play the statesman in the largest possible arena, and to thereby widen the public-relations advantage over Herzog and his ally Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu has managed to acquire an invitation to address a special meeting of Congress on March 3.
Netanyahu made it clear at once that he intended to speak frankly and bluntly about the contrary understandings of his government and Obama’s government regarding what Netanyahu regards as the most dangerous development in international affairs— the imminent prospect of a diplomatic agreement that would allow Iran to expand its nuclear capabilities under yet another version of the kind of international observation that has in the past failed to prevent the nuclear- militarizing of Pakistan and North Korea. At a Likud Party event in Jerusalem Netanyahu recently proclaimed: “A bad deal with Iran is taking shape in Munich, one that will endanger the existence of Israel. Therefore I am determined to travel to Washington and to present Israel’s position before the members of Congress and the American people.”
The Day Before Purim.
Journalists who describe the current donnybrook between Netanyahu and Obama in terms of personal feud, get away with this only because they are either ignorant of or indifferent to the most important fact among all the important facts involved in this case — that Israel is a near neighbour to Iran, while the United States is half a world away.
The consequence of any miscalculation that the United States may make in course of its negotiations with Iran will inevitably fall upon Israel. Any subsequent diplomacy for the purpose of re-settling Iran’s “rights” will take place after Israel has been removed from the world.
President Obama ought at least to step up and acknowledge this – but, to my knowledge, he never has.
Elie Wiesel in a recent full page advertisement in the New York Times draws the world’s attention to the fact that Netanyahu’s appeal to Congress and the world will come “in the day before Purim” — “the day when, in ancient times, ‘a wicked man in Persia named Haman’ sought to destroy the Jews… Now Iran, modern Persia, has produced a new enemy. The Ayatollah Khamenei has been as clear as his predecessor in declaring his goal: ‘the annihilation and destruction’ of Israel. He is bent on acquiring the weapons needed to make good on the deadly promise.”
What’s At Stake for Barack Obama.
The Obama Administration believes that Israel has uncovered more than it is entitled to know about the secret negotiations between the U.S and Iran and is simultaneously using scare tactics about the realities and violating the trust that decent leaders and allies depend on. According to the New York Times,
A senior and respected Israeli politician said the White House is risking Israel’s future for the sake of its own selfish interests … ‘There’s no question that some of the things that the Israelis have said in characterizing our negotiating position have not been accurate ….. Israeli leaders say the deal America is negotiating would leave the Iranian nuclear program largely intact, trusting to the word of the mullahs to not develop a nuclear weapon …. [“Obama accuses Israel of Lying About Iran deal,” Israel Today, February 19, 2015. See also, inter alia: “Obama and Netanyahu clash from afar Over Israeli’s Planned speech,” NYT, February 9; “Netanyahu; ‘Israel in profound disagreement with Obama Administration,” Israel Today, February 1.]
Prime Minister Netanyahu attempted to make Iran the major foreign policy issue of the American Presidential election of 2012, and, in doing so, blatantly allied himself with Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Following the rules of statesmanship as he understands them, Obama is now seizing his turn to sabotage Netanyahu’s campaign for re-election by causing him to fail to get his message into the Senate chamber.
Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post , widely read and admired for the exceptional realism of her commentary, writes:
Officially, the election on March 17 is among Israelis. Depending on how we vote, either Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will remain in office and form the next government led by his Likud party, or Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni will form a government. But unofficially, a far greater electoral drama is unfolding. The choice is not between Netanyahu and Herzog/Livni. It is between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama .… As the White House sees it, if Herzog/Livni form the next government, then Jerusalem will dance to Obama’s tune. If Netanyahu is reelected, then the entire edifice of Obama’s Middle eat policy may topple and fall.” (Caroline Glick, “ Netanyahu’s true electoral rival,” Jerusalem Post, February 19, 2015.)
On the Eve of Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress.
As I write, two days before the speech is due to be delivered, President Obama appears to have failed in his misguided campaign to kick Netanyahu off the stage. (“Obama’s Boycott of Netanyahu is collapsing,” http://www.algemeriner.com, February 18. Under direction from their boss, both Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry will be unavailable to attend the speech. Joe Biden was scheduled to be visiting Uruguay, but has since cancelled that on account of a bad cold. Kerry’s destination on that day was not announced for certain yet, but it will definitely be abroad. Still, only a handful of Congressmen have taken the hint. It looks likely to be a nearly full House.
Most students of American history and politics will concede that there is some merit in President Obama’s protest that Netanyahu’s gambit has put American politicians – right up to the President – in a position where they must appear to be taking sides in a foreign election. The larger fact is that Congress is co-equal with the Executive in responsibility for foreign Policy and has every right to listen to anybody whose thoughts might help it in its deliberations. There is no reason on earth why the Prime Minister of Israel should apologize for doing his job. It is entirely Obama’s own fault if the transparent efforts of his various elves to deny a platform for the elected leader of a major ally have failed.
But quite apart from any merit that there may be in Obama’s protest his failure can be sufficiently explained as manifestation of the low estate to which his prestige as a world leader has fallen since his re-election less than two years ago.