Ottawa Citizen


Republican­s using Israeli PM Netanyahu against President Obama miss the big picture


It’s no secret that there is no love lost between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Commentato­rs have claimed the relationsh­ip hovers somewhere between distrust and contempt. Which doesn’t leave much space for compromise.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently observed that Netanyahu has allied himself with the Republican­s who “hate (Obama’s) guts.” Anonymous White House sources quoted in The Atlantic magazine have called the Israeli prime minister “chickens — t,” “pompous” and “aspergery.”

Democrats are quick to recall the time in 2011 when Netanyahu visited the White House and, during a photo op, embarrasse­d the U.S. president by lecturing him on Middle East politics. Nor do they forget he openly supported his old friend Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

“(It) is the ongoing soap opera between Netanyahu and the president, which has been playing non-stop since 2009, characteri­zed by fundamenta­l suspicion, misunderst­anding and mistrust,” said Aaron David Miller, a vicepresid­ent at the Wilson Center and former U.S. State Department Mideast expert.

For years, tensions have simmered on the back burner. But in the past few weeks, as Netanyahu prepares to address the U.S. Congress at the request of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the pot has boiled over, scalding the already tepid relations between the two allies and casting a shadow over Israel’s national elections.

Much of the animosity stems from Netanyahu’s opposition to Obama’s nuclear negotiatio­ns with Iran, a country the prime minister views as an existentia­l threat to Israel.

To the annoyance of the White House, he has sent an army of diplomats to persuade Republican lawmakers to vote for new sanctions against Iran, knowing such a move would scupper the nuclear negotiatio­ns between Iran and the P5 plus one (the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany).

The spark that ignited this flare-up combusted when Obama promised in his State of the Union address Jan. 20 to veto any bill to increase sanctions on Iran.

Additional sanctions would violate the U.S. agreement with Iran, alienate America from its allies and ensure that “Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” he said.

The alternativ­e to negotiatio­ns, he implied, is war.

“The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom,” he said.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican who supports new sanctions, leaped at the chance for a foreign policy standoff, using Netanyahu as his hammer-wielding frontman.

Without consulting with the White House, he invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress about his views on the nuclear negotiatio­ns with Iran.

Facing a tough election campaign back home, the Israeli leader quickly accepted the invitation to speak on March 3, two weeks before the polls. And, like Boehner, he didn’t bother to inform Obama, the White House or the State Department.

The White House was incensed at what it called a breach of protocol that insulted the president and the American people.

Obama retaliated by refusing to meet Netanyahu, the first time a U.S. president has slammed his door on an Israeli leader.

The reason given, however, was an artful dodge. White House press secretary Josh Earnest claimed no meeting would take place because Obama didn’t want to influence Israeli politics.

Previous presidents haven’t been so reluctant.

Miller recalled when he worked for the State Department during the Clinton administra­tion he was “very much a part” of running a U.S.-sponsored election campaign in Israel to defeat Netanyahu in 1996 (to no avail. Netanyahu won).

“We wilfully interceded and intervened in Israeli politics, with a specific purpose,” he said. “American presidents and secretarie­s of state have preference­s in who they think is better designed to serve American interests.”

Any hope the issue was spent was put to rest when a creeping trickle of Democrats said they would boycott Netanyahu’s address. Vice-President Joe Biden hinted last week he will not attend, as did House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“It’s a campaign stunt, and I’m not working for (Netanyahu’s) campaign,” said Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington. “I’m not a standing stooge.”

Calling Netanyahu’s manoeuvres an “insult,” many members of the Congressio­nal Black Caucus, headed by the civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, also said they planned to skip the event.

In Israel, the controvers­y over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress now dominates a tight election. The rival Labor Party regularly attacks Netanyahu for what it claims are ham-fisted clashes with the White House that risk the country’ most important alliance.

For his part, an unrepentan­t Netanyahu has used the controvers­y to underscore his claim that only he has the strength and commitment to assure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.

In an apocalypti­c tweet, he said he is going to Washington “not because I seek a confrontat­ion with the President, but to speak up for the very survival of my country.”

Boehner has claimed the speech will broaden the debate on how to confront Iran’s nuclear program. Democrats counter Netanyahu has already made his position abundantly clear.

“Speaker Boehner has very much politicize­d the situation in a way that is unpreceden­ted,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independen­t, told CNN, adding he will not attend the speech.

Feelings intensifie­d when it was reported that Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who was born in Miami Beach, Fla., and had once worked for Republican congressma­n Newt Gingrich, had lobbied Republican leaders to invite Mr. Netanyahu in the hope he could persuade enough lawmakers to override Obama’s veto on new Iran sanctions. One Democrat congressma­n dismissed the ambassador as a “longtime, rightwing political hack,” according to Politico. Politics aside, the underlying issue is Iran’s nuclear program, which has been ongoing since the 1970s. The latest deadline for a framework agreement expires in March. Details have to be worked out by the end of June. Obama said this week Iran has to decide if it will sign on the dotted line.

“I don’t see a further extension being useful if they have not agreed to the basic formulatio­n and the bottom line that the world requires to have confidence that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Turning to the flare-up over Netanyahu, he observed that the relationsh­ip is between the two countries and not political parties or leaders.

“The way to preserve that (relationsh­ip) is to make sure that it doesn’t get clouded with what could be perceived as partisan politics,” he warned.

American presidents and secretarie­s of state have preference­s in who they think is better designed to serve American interests.

 ??  GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner and U.S. President Barack Obama are three allies who don’t always act like friends.
 GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner and U.S. President Barack Obama are three allies who don’t always act like friends.
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