Wednesday, February 04, 2015
A Visit Netanyahu May Come to Regret
Joe Biden won't commit to being there. The Democratic caucus might give it a pass too. The "it" is Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress on 3 March.
Democrats have had to balance publicly supporting Israel with backing Obama, who’s trying to close a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear programs over vehement opposition from Netanyahu, who has expressed concerns that the U.S. president is being naive. Negotiations are facing a deadline at the end of March for a political framework.
The speech was devised by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer to provide Netanyahu a prominent Washington platform to warn about the dangers of the proposed deal with Iran. But it also appeared to be based on an Israeli perception that Obama was weakened after midterm elections gave control of both houses of Congress to Republicans, and timed to take place just two weeks before Netanyahu faces reelection on March 17 — and footage of American officials applauding him couldn’t hurt his prospects.
But that reading of Obama seems not to have been updated since November, when Obama’s own poll numbers started moving up again, and — though Netanyahu’s Likud Party is still leading in Israeli polls — miscalculated the backlash in Israel from putting his relationship with the American president on the line.
Netanyahu’s already been denied an Oval Office meeting with Obama. Secretary of State John Kerry has no plans to meet with him while he’s in town, a State Department official told POLITICO on Tuesday.
The showdown puts the White House in a position it isn’t much used to with Netanyahu: appearing to have the political edge. Throughout Obama’s time in office, the prime minister has elbowed his way into American politics to corner and game the president. This time, without much nudging from the White House beyond a complaint about breached protocol, Netanyahu’s speech has sparked criticism across Washington and in the American Jewish community — as well as among diplomats, Israeli officials and domestic political opponents who include his own former ambassador to Washington.
The president and his aides won’t tell Democrats to skip the speech. But they aren’t telling Democrats to go, either.
“We defer to Democratic members if they’d like to attend or not,” a White House aide said Tuesday.
Biden’s office wouldn’t comment on the decision-making process about attending the speech. As president of the Senate, he usually takes a seat beside Boehner on the podium behind the lectern for addresses by foreign leaders.
Though some may abandon the threat, as of Tuesday, many Democrats on the Hill — including several Jewish members — said they’re likely to leave the prime minister looking at some empty seats.