Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Boehner/Netanyahu: “So smart, they’re stupid”

The stunt of having Netanyahu address the US Congress, challenging Obama days after his State of the Union address, is irresponsible and will lead nowhere, writes James Zogby

Al-Ahram Weekly

When I was growing up there was a saying used to describe people who were so cocky that they did really dumb things: “He’s so smart, he’s stupid.” I thought of this expression when I heard Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner announce that he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in order to challenge President Obama’s handling of “the grave threats of radical Islam and Iran.”

I’m sure that, as he was making his announcement, Boehner thought that he was the smartest guy in Washington. He had just stolen the president’s thunder, one day after the State of the Union speech. I’m equally sure that Netanyahu sat back in Jerusalem crowing to himself just how smart he was to be in a position, once again, to deliver a frontal assault against an American president who had the temerity to oppose him.

Boehner’s invitation was not only intended as a challenge to the president’s foreign policy. He has some obvious political motives as well. According to Israeli press reports, the idea for the speech was first raised by Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer.

Dermer, a former Republican operative and a confidante of both Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire GOP donor, apparently proposed the idea of the speech to Republican leaders as early as 8 January. An agreement was reached for the Speaker to extend the invitation days before the State of the Union, without giving any notice to the White House or the State Department.

Netanyahu is running for re-election in Israel. He faces opponents who are raising concerns that he has damaged the US-Israel relationship. He therefore craves the opportunity to stand before an adoring US Congress, the members of which will give him multiple standing ovations and demonstrate that Netanyahu, not Obama, rules American politics.

It was Netanyahu, after all, who was caught on tape a decade ago telling supporters, “I know what America is ... America is a thing you can move very easily.” He believes that he has a record to justify his cockiness.

Netanyahu has long been married to the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party. For years he has worked with it to sabotage US peace-making efforts. In the 1990s, he collaborated with the Gingrich-led Congress to pass the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act, over the objections of the then leaders of both the US and Israel, President Clinton and Prime Minister Rabin.

Once elected as prime minister, Netanyahu delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress at Gingrich’s invitation and pledged to end the Oslo peace process. That speech was written with the help of leading American neo-conservatives like Richard Perle, Doug Feith and David Wurmser.

He used his next appearance before Congress in 2011, at Boehner’s invitation, to rebuke President Obama’s call for a peace agreement based on the “1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps.” At the time, observers across the globe were amazed at the gall of a Congress that would invite a foreign leader who sought to deliver a slap in the face to their president, and then respond by giving the foreign leader 29 standing ovations.

So the ever self-assured Netanyahu relishes the opportunity that his agents have cooked up for him to once again demonstrate that he, together with his Republican allies, can dominate Washington. Not to mention that his appearance will come just weeks before the Israeli elections.

Political calculations are also key to Boehner’s intent. Not only does he get to embarrass the president, the invitation presents an opportunity for Republicans to try to make Israel a wedge issue, showing that they, not the Democrats, are Israel’s best friends in Washington.

And it doesn’t hurt that the decision to bring the prime minister to Congress will make Sheldon Adelson happy. Adelson, after all, spent more than $100 million in a failed effort to defeat Obama in 2012, and has committed to spend at least as much to bring a Republican to the White House in 2016.

Washington’s reaction to this breach in protocol was immediate. The White House and State Department made it clear that they would not meet with the Israeli leader when he comes to the US.

One American official quoted in the Israeli press said the failure of Netanyahu to inform the White House that he was scheduling a speech before Congress “is not the way people act ... it is unprecedented. It is barbaric behaviour. It is so impolite that it is disgraceful. It is simply inconceivable.”

The same official said that “the Israelis know how to pick up the phone ... screaming for help” when it comes to opposing Palestinian efforts at the UN, the International Criminal Court, or for more help with Iron Dome. Another American official reminded the Israelis that Obama will be president for two more years and doesn’t have to worry about another election campaign.

Media commentators were equally put off by the Boehner/Netanyahu action, calling it an effort to undermine American leadership and an unprecedented breach of protocol. A leading Israeli commentator was concerned that “Netanyahu’s Congressional gambit ... could endanger Israel’s long-term interests in the United States” and, in any case, would most likely not sway Israeli voters who, at this point, either love or hate the long-time prime minister.

More interesting were reports that the leadership of the Israeli intelligence agency undercut their prime minister’s case by warning a visiting group of US Senators against imposing any new sanctions targeting Iran while negotiations are ongoing. They said that such a move would be akin to “throwing a grenade into the process.”

If Netanyahu won’t benefit politically in Israel from his effort, will Boehner and the GOP fare any better with the American electorate? Those pundits who suggest that Boehner’s action threatens to make support for Israel a partisan issue miss an important point: it already is a partisan issue and is becoming more so with every passing year.

The division of the American electorate is not merely by party but by demographics. Republican voters are largely older, white and male, including a strong cohort that identifies itself as “born-again Christians.” Democratic voters, on the other hand, are young, including educated women, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans.

Obama’s victories showed that the GOP base is shrinking while the Democrat’s base is growing. Furthermore, our polls indicate that Democrats (that is, younger, educated and “minority” voters) may continue to support Israel, in the abstract, but are increasingly opposed to Israeli conduct.

While Netanyahu has strong favourable ratings among Republicans, his ratings are decidedly lower among Democrats. Polls also show that the vast majority of American Jews continues to vote for Democrats, supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012 (as did Arab Americans), and support his efforts to rein in Iran and achieve a just Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Boehner/Netanyahu insult to the president may get cheers from some members of Congress in both parties, but it won’t sway voters either in Israel or the US. And if Congress attempts to buck the president by passing new sanctions legislation, he will, as promised, veto the bill. And so it appears that the instigators of this entire affair will get little more than a black eye for their efforts.

The bottom line: this was one of the most ham-fisted, irresponsible and potentially dangerous political stunts ever engineered by American and Israeli political leaders. All I can say is, “They were so smart they were stupid.”

The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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