This time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have gone too far.
It’s bad enough that John Boehner invited him to address a joint session of Congress and lobby for more sanctions on Iran — and directly seek to undercut the president’s top diplomatic initiative. Far worse is that Netanyahu accepted the invitation; it was a demonstration of ingratitude and hubris rarely seen before in the annals of the US-Israel bilateral relationship.
In the process, Netanyahu has not simply blindsided the Obama administration, but, ironically, he may have directly undermined his own political fortunes.
This kind of behavior from Netanyahu is nothing new. Throughout Obama’s time in office, he has seemingly gone out of his way to stick his finger in the president’s eye.
It began with Israel’s refusal to abide by American demands for a settlement freeze, worsened in 2011 when Netanyahu delivered an infamous “history lesson” to Obama in the Oval Office in 2011 on the security challenges facing Israel. It hit a new low when he all but endorsed Obama’s 2012 GOP rival, Mitt Romney, and it hit rock bottom when he disparaged the 2013 nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran and tried to get Congress to kill it with new sanctions legislation. In between, Israeli officials have both publicly and privately disparaged the administration, particularly Secretary of State John Kerry.
Yet, through it all, Obama has steadfastly supported Israel with political, diplomatic, and military assistance. Just this month, the United States has worked tirelessly to blunt efforts to push a Security Council resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood as well as an investigation into Israeli practices in the occupied territories by the International Criminal Court. After Israeli jets killed an Iranian general in Syria, the United States undertook a diplomatic initiative to lower tensions.
Yet Netanyahu still stuck it to the White House this week. As the administration is working furiously to stop Congress from passing an Iran sanctions bill, Netanyahu’s move could not have been better calculated to undercut the administration.
But with national elections in March and Netanyahu’s Likud party trailing the suddenly revitalized Labor party in public opinion polls, the prime minister is seemingly happy to throw Obama and the White House under the bus if it means improving his image among Israeli voters.
That may turn out to be a major miscalculation. Netanyahu’s actions have the potential to boomerang against him both in the United States and in Israel.
First, you can pretty much put a fork in Iran sanctions legislation. With Republicans controlling Congress, the bill will likely be passed, but the possibility of a congressional override of an almost certain presidential veto seems remote. Democrats were already wavering about the possibility of going against their president, but now that Netanyahu and Boehner have nakedly politicized the issue, it will give Democrats even more reason to stick with Obama. For years, Israeli leaders — and their supporters in the United States — have gone to great lengths to make support for Israel a bipartisan issue. Yet Netanyahu has repeatedly sided with the GOP against Obama — so much so that he is often derisively referred to as the Republican senator from Israel. This latest action will only increase the partisan divide, and weaken Democratic support for Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership.
Netanyahu is apparently unbothered by this, because the short-term goal of winning the next Israeli election takes precedence. But even here he may have overreached. From all appearances, Israelis are increasingly concerned that the US-Israel bilateral relationship is in crisis — and they believe that Netanyahu is partly responsible. Undermining that relationship only weeks before a national election may have the perverse effect of reminding Israelis why another term for Netanyahu could be so dangerous for the country. Beyond that, Netanyahu has practically ensured that the next two years of Obama’s terms will be one of simmering hostility between the United States and Israel.
In a larger sense, however, Netanyahu has put the ball in Obama’s court. In seven weeks, Israelis will go to the polls. If the United States wants to try and influence Israeli public opinion to heighten fears about maintaining the political status quo, Netanyahu has given the White House its own engraved invitation to do so.
After Netanyahu’s shameless actions this week, Obama would be wise to accept it.