Wrong Time for Netanyahu to Address Congress

Israel is becoming a partisan football, a wedge issue cynically manipulated to grab headlines and seek political gain.

Photo Credit: yakub88/Shutterstock.com

As a proud pro-Israel American, I am grateful that an Israeli prime minister has been invited to address Congress for a third time -- a high honor shared only by Sir Winston Churchill. Yet in the middle of an Israeli election and with a congressional battle over Iran sanctions looming, sometimes an invitation is more political gamesmanship than diplomatic honor. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner's latest gambit -- arranging an address to a joint session of Congress by the Prime Minister just two weeks before the Israeli election -- is severely taxing our special relationship. With mixed emotions, I find myself empathizing with the Jewish leader who told Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev: "I was literally sick to my stomach when I heard about it." White House spokesman Josh Earnest diplomatically called the invitation "a departure from protocol," and even staunch pro-Israel advocate and Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman termed it "ill-advised." Sadly, this invitation is glaring evidence that Israel is becoming a partisan football, a wedge issue cynically manipulated to grab headlines and seek political gain.  We saw this dynamic play out in the 2012 presidential race when Mitt Romney's campaign attempted to peel off Jewish voters from President Obama by insinuating that Obama had thrown Israel "under the bus." It didn't work then, though the tactic will likely rear its ugly head again in the next race for the White House. And it's not likely to work now for Boehner, who is essentially enlisting the Israeli leader to help him try to deal the President of the United States a political blow by derailing nuclear negotiations with Iran through legislating new sanctions. Unfortunately, although the Republican Party is clearly hoping to hobble the current president's agenda, the real impact of the speaker's political stunt is likely to be a further erosion of the bipartisan nature of support for Israel, at a time when Israel increasingly needs America's backing as a bulwark against its growing international isolation.
    Secretary of State John Kerry held a lengthy meeting with Israel's ambassador to the United States on Tuesday, a day before the Washington visit was announced, a senior administration official told CNN. The Israeli government was being accused of assassinating an Iranian general on the Israel-Syria border, and the White House was, according to eminent Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, exerting significant effort in an attempt to de-escalate the situation with Iran. Yet in an example of what Barnea describes as "ingratitude of the ugliest kind," the planned visit was not mentioned. And when Netanyahu arrives in March, he and Kerry will not meet. Americans and Israelis who care about the relationship between the two countries must work quickly to prevent relations from sinking any lower. While our militaries are still coordinating as closely as ever, and our special relationship is ultimately built on more than the chemistry between two leaders, key long-term interests of both countries hang in the balance. Erosion of trust between our governments will damage our ability to work together to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel in peace and security. Boehner would be wise to postpone his invitation until later this spring, when the new Israeli government has been formed and the next prime minister has a fresh mandate from the Israeli people. And whoever that next leader is should make Washington his (or her) first visit, and work with the President to confront the serious challenges that our two countries face.

     

    Jeremy Ben-Ami is President of J Street
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