Next Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress. It’s an event cooked up by House Speaker John Boehner and Netanyahu to undermine President Obama’s effort to negotiate an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear ambition. In the process it has not only politicized the US-Israel relationship, but has also dragged it to its lowest point in a generation.
Democrats owe it to their party and their president to boycott the speech.
To attend would both legitimize Boehner and Netanyahu’s actions but also give an explicit boost to Netanyahu’s reelection effort, which, if successful, would likely lead to the creation of a right-wing Israeli government whose values are alien to the Democratic Party.
Don’t believe it.
It’s not that Netanyahu doesn’t care about Iran. It’s that the nuclear issue has become a means to a political end, a tool for strengthening his own security bonafides a few weeks before Israelis go to the polls. For his political base, standing up to Obama (who is unpopular in Israel) and his party on the problem of Iran — while keeping attention focused on security issues rather than Israel’s rising cost of living — is a win-win situation.
Netanyahu’s actions last week are confirmation of this cynical perspective. On Tuesday, he turned down an invitation from two of the most pro-Israel members of the Senate, Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein, to speak privately with Democratic caucus about the Iran nuclear issue. The prime minister complained that to go would “compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit,” which is a bit like closing the stable door long after the horses have ran miles away.
Based on Netanyahu’s stated rationale for coming to Washington his demurral makes no sense. In the US Congress the most consequential group of lawmakers opposed to increasing pressure on Iran . . . are Senate Democrats. If Netanyahu were truly interested, above all else, in convincing Congress to take a hard line on Iran, meeting with Durbin, Feinstein and their colleagues would be the best opportunity in which to do it.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s snub increases the likelihood that those Democrats, who are torn between backing Obama’s foreign policy agenda and supporting a close ally, will firmly choose the former course. Quite simply, no political leader who claims to care as dearly about the Iran issue as Netanyahu regularly does would do what he’s doing.
In Israel, the notion that domestic politics is Netanyahu’s primary motivation for coming to Washington is basically taken for granted. According to one January poll, 67 percent of Israelis think Netanyahu is using the speech “to influence the election results at home.”
This is what makes the decision facing congressional Democrats that much more consequential. If one concludes that Netanyahu’s speech is basically about Israeli domestic politics — and Congress is being used as a political prop — attending the joint session takes on a very different meaning: Simply sitting in the House chamber to hear Netanyahu would be the equivalent of cutting a campaign ad for his reelection.
Boycotting, however, sends a very different message — namely that Democrats will not allow themselves to be manipulated by Netanyahu. And that just as the Israeli Prime Minister has cast his lot with Republicans, they will be casting theirs with Netanyahu’s opposition.
The fact is, while Netanyahu may be the prime minister of a close ally, his vision for Israel is hardly one that Democrats in the United States should be embracing. Netanyahu is, for all intents and purposes, an opponent of the two-state solution. He has unabashedly — and in opposition to long-standing US policy — expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Members of his party and coalition have made clear that they have no interest in ever allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state, while others have both attacked President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry and fanned the flames of bigotry inside Israel.
Israeli left-wing and center-left parties don’t necessarily have clean hands, but on economic policy, civil liberties, national security, and the future of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank they have far more in common with Democrats. For Democrats to attend Netanyahu’s speech would directly undercut them. Boycotting en masse, on the other hand, would magnify the damage that Netanyahu has done to the US-Israel relationship and could very possibly tip next month’s election toward a center-left coalition.
In support of his narrow political goals, Netanyahu has injected politics into a bilateral relationship that has long had bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. His tawdry actions have put congressional Democrats in the impossible position of having to choose between support for Israel and support for their president. These are hardly the actions of a friend.
For Democrats, their choice should be relatively easy. Don’t go.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.