Simon Williamson

Cracks in the dam

2015-03-03 12:55

Simon Williamson

The Prime Minister of Israel is due to address a join session of the US Congress today, in the culmination of an incredibly slow balls up since the Speaker of the House of Representatives invited him earlier this year.
Some quick background: a few months ago John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, invited the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come and address a joint session of Congress (both the upper and lower chambers). That’s a big deal. However, Boehner decided not to inform President Obama – you know, the head of state – that he was planning to do so. I checked with a senior diplomat: this doesn’t just violate diplomatic ethics – it’s balderdashingly rude, particularly as Netaynahu is using it as a nice platform to campaign for his election in two weeks. Boehner and Netanyahu are both opposed to President Obama’s plan to come to an agreement with Iran over the Gulf nation’s nuclear weaponry capacity.
So other than it being super rude for a head of state to rock up to a campaign event in a country that is not his, without the invitation of the president of the nation in which he’s coming to jol, Netanyahu is also coming to crap all over the decisions of a foreign head of state, at the request of someone who is not the president and has little authority when it comes to the foreign policy of the United States.
Netanyahu took a gamble that he could pressure the US Congress to in turn shame the president to stop deal-making with Iran, Netanyahu’s absolute political hobby-horse. He thought he could do this by relying on the usual unanimity towards Israel from anyone elected in any position in any branch of the US government, including Democrats, Republicans and independents.
And that unanimity, until this charade of an address was announced, seemed resolutely unbreakable. Not one US politician would speak out against Israel because of the inevitable political threat and media backlash, and because the upshot really wasn’t very rewarding. Not even Elizabeth Warren, that bastion of complaining on behalf of the downtrodden, would dare criticise Israel when offered the chance.
Until, that is, Netanyahu decided to take on the president. And the only bipartisan issue since Barack Obama took office – deference to whatever Israel wants – began to slowly unwind. I cannot impress upon you enough how even the most liberal Democrats have refuse to take a moderately temperate line on Israel, or anything that could remotely be perceived as empathy with the Palestinians, or any other Israeli enemies.
Netanyahu’s refusal to cancel his address has resulted in 55 congressional Democrats - at the time of writing there were 18 hours left for more to fall – refusing to attend; choosing the side of the president. This is on top of the declinations of anyone from the Obama administration, including the president, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. In contemporary America this is UNHEARD OF.
Because Netanyahu took on the president, forcing Democrats to choose between Obama and Israel, policy toward the US’ greatest ally now has the potential to become a political tennis ball in this fractious period of US politics. Debating support of Israel has not been anywhere on the US radar in years.
The refusal of 55 emboldened Democrats – nearly a quarter of the entire caucus – is a significant leak in the dam. None of these Democrats, even a few weeks ago, would dare have done something like this. And the fact that so many have decided to buck the speech, including some real political heavyweights, is setting a huge precedent. There is now a faction of the Democratic Party that does not humbly defer to Israel, and is not scared of electoral blowback. This is a brand new concept in both US and Israeli politics.
It didn’t have to be this way. Netanyahu’s eagerness to campaign on a really big stage could cost his country dearly in the long term. The unbreakable relationship between Israel and the US just suffered its first crack.
No matter what side you may sit of any of the myriad debates relating to Israel, or what judgements you may have over the character of the Israeli Prime Minister, there is no doubt that protection of its relationship with the US is paramount. Netanyahu just became the first person in a hell of a long time to endanger that.

- Simon Williamson is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He previously worked on the campaign of Michelle Nunn, a Democratic candidate for Georgia’s US Senate seat in 2014. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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Read more on:    benjamin netanyahu  |  barack obama  |  john boehner  |  us  |  israel

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