Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should reconsider his decision to accept a politically motivated invitation to speak to the U.S. Congress on March 3. Going through with it may inflict more damage to the Israeli cause in this country than all the vicious propaganda continually issued by Israel’s many foes.
The most harmful prospect is that his appearance in Congress will undermine support for Israel, not only on Capitol Hill and inside the Beltway, but in the country at large.
Israel’s great diplomatic success in forging strong ties with the United States is founded on the principle of bipartisanship. Democrats and Republicans alike boast of having a pro-Israeli voting record, and consistently court voters who support Israel. Few other countries or causes can claim Israel’s great measure of success in this regard.
Yet by accepting an invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner to speak to Congress two weeks before an Israeli election, Mr. Netanyahu is undermining the bipartisan principle. Mr. Boehner ignored customary diplomatic protocol in extending the invitation without informing the White House, a cynical ploy designed as both a poke in the eye at the president and an attempt to win political points for Republicans.
The Israeli public and news media are divided over the wisdom of the prime minister’s move, but on one thing the great majority seems to agree: Mr. Netanyahu leaped at it because a statesmanlike speech to a joint session of Congress would make him look good to voters back home just prior to the election in which he is seeking a fourth term.
We do not doubt for a moment that Mr. Netanyahu sincerely believes that the threat Israel faces from Iran is too great to be ignored, and that he has an obligation to seize every opportunity to give voice to that view no matter whose political toes he steps on. But surely it is not in Israel’s national interest to alienate one of the two major political parties in this country, nor to add to his political differences with the president of the United States. On Monday, Mr. Obama said that to meet with the prime minister would break protocol because of the timing of Israeli elections, so he won’t.
In this instance, Netanyahu’s acceptance represents a miscalculation of the first order. Israel’s differences with the White House on the topic of how to respond to the Iranian threat are well known. And his views are shared, to a degree, by many prominent Democrats.
But is it really wise for the prime minister of Israel to willingly take part in a political charade orchestrated by GOP leaders on Capitol Hill designed to embarrass President Obama? How many additional votes is that going to win for Israel in Congress?
Mr. Netanyahu is no dummy. He is cognizant of the political role he is playing. If his objective is to appear statesmanlike, it’s likely to backfire. Custom calls for both the speaker of the House and the vice president of the United States to form a backdrop behind those who address a joint session of Congress. Mr. Boehner, of course, will be there, but Vice President Joe Biden has already said he will not attend because the White House was not officially informed of this event beforehand in violation of custom and courtesy, and because it’s too close to an Israeli election.
Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama may have their differences. But Israel has no better friend in Washington than Joe Biden. His absence is yet one more reason that Israel’s prime minister should reconsider his unwise decision.