Damages Netanyahu Is Doing to Israel

Damages Netanyahu Is Doing to IsraelDamages Netanyahu Is Doing to Israel

It would be reassuring—sort of—to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to set the US-Israel relationship on fire mainly because he fears that President Obama is selling out Israel. But Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3—a speech arranged without Obama’s knowledge by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and by Obama’s chief Republican rival, House Speaker John Boehner—is motivated by another powerful fear: the fear of unemployment, Jeffrey Goldberg, author of ‘Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror’ wrote for The Atlantic.

The message ‘Bibi’ is preparing to deliver on Tuesday (a “statesmanlike message,” according to an official close to him) has as its actual target not Congress but, instead, Israeli voters who need reminding, in Netanyahu’s view, that he is the only leader strong enough to face down both the regime in Tehran and the Israel-loathing regime in Washington (make no mistake: Netanyahu sees Obama as an actual adversary).

Bibi is facing an existential threat to his career, and Boehner is staging for him the ultimate campaign rally, 6,000 miles away from home. People I’ve spoken with in Israel who have a sophisticated understanding of current campaign dynamics—the Israeli election is set for March 17—say that a well-delivered, well-received speech (standing ovations in Congress seem very impressive unless you know better) could gain Netanyahu two or three extra seats in the Knesset, which might be what he needs to retain his job. Polls are showing the centrist Zionist Camp party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni competing strongly against Netanyahu’s Likud party, and there are also hints that traditional Netanyahu voters who have grown tired of him or who are concerned about issues that don’t seem to concern him—Israel’s affordable housing crisis, for one—might move to other right-wing parties, making his task more difficult.

“If this [speech to Congress] didn’t have an electoral quality to it, why not just say to Boehner, ‘Invite me after the election’?” Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator, asked.

  A Desperate Attempt

Netanyahu is engaging in behavior that is without precedent: He is apparently so desperate to stay in office that he has let the Republicans weaponize his country in their struggle against a Democratic president they despise. Boehner seeks to do damage to Obama, and he has turned Netanyahu into an ally in this cause. It’s not entirely clear here who is being played.

In Israel, cynicism about Netanyahu’s intentions is spreading. “Netanyahu, who purports to be the big expert on everything American, subordinated Israel’s most crucial strategic interests to election considerations, and the repercussions will endure for some time,” Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, wrote last week. Another Netanyahu critic, Martin Indyk, the former Obama administration peace envoy, told me that he believes the Israeli prime minister is motivated by a combination of factors, including a belief that he is best equipped to defend the Jewish people against external threats.

Indyk went on to say, however, that “in the process, Bibi has generated a suspicion that there’s another motivation, which is that he’s in a neck-and-neck race for prime minister, and this appearance before Congress looks like an attempt to show the Israeli voter two weeks before the election that Congress has his back even though he’s in a confrontation with the president of the United States. And because of that suspicion, he has managed to achieve the opposite of his intention.”

  Uncharted Waters

Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the US until 2013, noted that US-Israel relationship is now in “uncharted waters.” No one knows how this disaster will unfold.

Dennis Ross, former Middle East peace negotiator, believes that the near-term relationship between the US and Israel depends almost entirely on the nature of the next Israeli government. “On traditional defense issues, the relations will be okay, but the impulse won’t be there on the part of the Obama administration to protect Israel on matters related to the delegitimization campaign”—the movement that calls into question Israel’s right to exist—“and on the internationalization of the conflict.” In other words, do not expect to see the Obama administration go out of its way to protect Israel at the United Nations.

Despite the invitation from Boehner, it has become clear that much of the rest of the world has stopped listening to Netanyahu. This is not solely his fault, the world is stacked against Israel on most matters. “The reason Netanyahu is about to give a desperate speech to the US Congress is that he knows he lost the game,” Ari Shavit, an Israeli columnist said in an article.

In any case, Netanyahu has a hard time selling his favorable nuclear deal to Congress, and to an American public.