The White House is openly supporting Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents in next month’s Israeli election. It follows the Israeli prime minister’s plan to attack President Barack Obama’s Iran policy in an address to the United States Congress, a move that continues to backfire on Netanyahu.
The Obama administration has engineered highly visible snubs – including not inviting him to the White House, accusing the Israeli government of not being trustworthy and a humiliating leak about new limitations on intelligence sharing – just weeks before the Israeli leader faces a tight general election.
Top American administration officials, including Vice-President Joe Biden and the secretary of state, John Kerry, have made a point of meeting Israeli opposition leaders who have seized on the dispute to characterise Netanyahu as jeopardising relations with Israel’s most important ally.
Biden, who is also president of the US Senate, and several Democratic members of Congress will be conspicuously absent from next week’s speech in which the Israeli prime minister is expected in effect to accuse Obama of being duped by the Iranians in negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear programme and of endangering the existence of the Jewish state.
Aaron David Miller, who served six US secretaries of state as an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said the confrontation marked a further deterioration in an already dysfunctional relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. But Miller, who is now a vice-president of the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, said the Israeli leader’s divisive handling had given the administration an opening “to try to demonstrate how much the US-Israeli relationship is dysfunctional at the top because of Netanyahu” and an opportunity to press for “regime change”.
“If you asked John Kerry and Obama privately who they wanted to see as the next prime minister of Israel, it wouldn’t be Netanyahu. They prefer the [Israeli opposition] Labour Party. There’s no question about it. This ‘invitationgate’, as I’m describing it, has created an opening for them,” he said. That had been seized upon to try to embarrass Netanyahu before the Israeli electorate by portraying him as untrustworthy and endangering the Jewish state’s most important diplomatic relationship.
The White House is particularly incensed that the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, conspired to arrange the speech to a joint sitting of Congress without consulting the administration. Democrats accuse Boehner of ambushing the president as the Republicans push, with the backing of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, to strengthen sanctions against Iran, a move Obama has warned “will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails”.
But it was Dermer, who was born in the US and worked as a Republican political operative before moving to Israel, who instigated Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Netanyahu has defended the speech as a legitimate attempt to stop Obama from making concessions to Iran that the Israeli leader said will leave Tehran on the brink of being able to build a nuclear weapon.
“I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the president but to speak up for the very survival of my country,” Netanyahu tweeted.
But his warnings of an imminent threat from Iran, already treated with scepticism, will have been further undermined by revelations in the Guardian this week that Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, contradicted his claim to the United Nations in 2012 that Tehran was about a year away from constructing a nuclear weapon.
Leading Democrats have described the timing of the speech as an “outrageous” attempt by the Israeli prime minister to bolster his support in the March 17 parliamentary election as well as an attempt to provide ammunition for Republican attacks on Obama.
Unusually direct attack
Last week, the White House made an unusually direct attack on the Israeli government, accusing it of dishonesty in selectively leaking information about the Iran nuclear talks to the Israeli press in an attempt to discredit the negotiations.
“We see that there is a continued practice of cherrypicking specific pieces of information and using them out of context to distort the negotiating position of the US,” said the White House spokesperson, Josh Earnest. “There’s no question that some of the things that the Israelis have said in characterising our negotiating position have not been accurate.”
That led the US not only to take the unusual step of limiting the intelligence it shares with Israel about the Iran talks but also to embarrass Netanyahu by leaking the move. Biden and Kerry met Israeli opposition leaders on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany in a clear snub to the Israeli prime minister.
Netanyahu will address Congress with an empty chair behind him – Biden is making a hurriedly arranged trip to South America. A few congress members have said they will boycott Netanyahu’s address.
“All of these things have been wilfully orchestrated,” said Miller, “Number one, to demonstrate how upset they are by this invitation but, number two, to take advantage of that to demonstrate to the Israeli electorate that Netanyahu’s mismanaging it.”
Two leading Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Richard Durbin, this week wrote to Netanyahu, warning that his speech “threatens to undermine the important bipartisan approach towards Israel”.
Sacrificing deep co-opration
“It sacrifices deep and well-established co-operation on Israel for short-term partisan points – something that should never be done with Israeli security and which we fear could have lasting repercussions,” the senators said in the letter.
Howard Dean, the former Democratic party chairperson, was unusually strident for an American politician in describing the Israeli prime minister as a “disaster”. Earlier this month he told MSNBC channel: “I don’t trust Netanyahu. I think he’s not served Israel well.”
Opinion polls in Israel show the public divided on the address to Congress, with widespread suspicion that Netanyahu is using it for electoral advantage. The Labour Party leader, Isaac Herzog – campaigning in coalition with other opposition parties under the Zionist Union banner – has called Netanyahu’s speech a “strategic mistake”, and accused the prime minister of using it for his own “political interest”. Zahava Gal-On, the leader of the small left-wing Meretz party, accused the prime minister of “impairing” Israel’s relations with the US.
Netanyahu’s Likud party has fought back with a campaign advert that suggests that, if modern Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, had listened to the US state department in 1948, the state would never have been born. – © Guardian News and Media 2015