Obama-Netanyahu spat makes for good theatre but little else

Obama-Netanyahu spat makes for good theatre but little else
Analysis: White House may be affronted, and Netanyahu may have made more enemies within the administration. But his invitation to address the US Congress is unlikely to affect policy, whether on Iran or Palestine.
6 min read
26 January, 2015
Never an easy relationship, but unlikely to affect policy too (Getty)

Five days after John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, announced he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to address the US Congress on "radical Islam" and the folly of an "Iran deal”, the outrage in Washington still reverberates.

Much of it is felt in the White House. Barack Obama, the US president, had not been informed and the breach of protocol

     If there is any change in the status quo, it will be despite, not because of, the US.

 - Khalid Elgindy

in inviting a foreign leader to such an eminent forum without consulting the president seemed to break with a tradition that began with independence, namely that foreign policy is primarily the province of the executive branch.

White House anger began to ooze through the cracks by the weekend. Unnamed White House official(s) were telling the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the Israeli leader had "spat" in President Barack Obama’s face, who still has two years left in his tenure as the most powerful man in the world and that…, "there will be a price"" 

Others quoted officials in Washington as saying that the “chicken-shit” epithet with which an anonymous administration official branded Netanyahu to Atlantic reporter Jeffrey Goldberg last October was mild compared to the language used in the White House when news of Netanyahu’s planned speech came in on 21 January less than twelve hours after Obama's 'State of the Union Address' – this uniquely American presidential ritual which requires all US presidents, as per Article III, Section II of the United States Constitution, to inform a joint session of Congress about how things are in the country, and his vision for the next 12 months.

The scheme was apparently hatched by Netanyahu, his ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer (born and raised in Florida), along with Boehner basically to sabotage the administration's effort to broker a deal with Iran in the 5+1 talks.


Here is how it unfolded. On Friday, 16 January, four days before his 'State of the Union Address', Obama was hosting British Prime Minister David Cameron. He used the occasion to announce that he would veto any new sanctions passed by Congress against Iran while the 5+1 talks with Iran were underway. He even inducted Cameron to call a number of congressional leaders, in both the House and the Senate, to urge them not to introduce any new legislation against Iran, lest such action unnecessarily heighten tensions with Iran and complicate a deal with Tehran.

Almost immediately, as we now know, Speaker Boehner, at the behest of Netanyahu, began plotting with Israel's ambassador Dermer, and directly with the Israeli prime minister himself, how best to pull the rug from under Obama's feet. This is despite Obama's repeated and solemn vow to "have Israel's back", that "all options" including US military might could be brought to bear against Iran, or his ceaseless invocation that no deal objected to by Israel will ever be signed.

In his invitation to Netanyahu, Boehner wrote: "Prime Minister Netanyahu is a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people." He explained, "In this time of challenge, I am asking the Prime Minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life. Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again."

For the rest of the day on 21 January and well into the morning hours of 22 January, Washington was abuzz with flabbergasted expressions of indignation from friends and allies of Obama, but also from among his critics who felt that the US should be affronted by a foreign leader intervening so directly in the president's foreign policy prerogative.

To make matters worse, we in the State Department press corps, learned on 22 January that the day of the Obama's speech, Tuesday 20 January, US Secretary of State John Kerry had met with Dermer, Israel's ambassador to Washington for two whole hours in the State Department with Dermer never mentioning that he, his boss and Boehner were plotting an announcement to take the limelight away from Obama's speech. 

Boehner, along with Netanyahu, claimed that the invitation to address a joint Congressional session was bipartisan (on behalf of the Republican majority and the Democratic minority). This was refuted by Democratic Congressional leader Nancy Peloci and Senate minority leader Harry Reid. Feeling the heat, Boehner issued a statement at nine am on 22 January saying that, "At his request, PM Netanyahu of Israel will now address joint meeting of Congress on March 3 so he can attend AIPAC conference in DC." 

The original address had been scheduled for 11 February.


By any standard, the Boehner/Netanyahu scheme to sabotage a possible deal with Iran is backfiring. Dianne Feinstein, the influential California senator and until recently Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement to Haaretz that inviting Netanyahu to address Congress during an Israeli election period is "highly inappropriate" and that imposing new sanctions on Iran at this time is "reckless and dangerous".  It suggests a growing backlash against Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, causing some Democratic lawmakers to rethink their initial support for the Iran sanctions bill.

To bolster its case for a deal, the Obama administration leaked a memo to Bloomberg News showing a huge rift between the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, and Netanyahu. According to the report, the Mossad sides with Obama on the lack of efficacy of imposing more sanction on Iran at the present time. 

Meanwhile, suggestions to mitigate the situation yet keep Netanyahu’s visit in the cards, bordered on the absurd. Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel, and most recently the US envoy to the now defunct Palestinian/Israeli negotiations, suggested on Twitter that in the name of fair play (and equal time), Congress should invite the head of Israel's Labour Party, Yitzhak Herzog to address them, turning the US Capitol into an Israeli election debate venue.

Adding insult to injury, on Sunday, Netanyahu, in vintage fashion, rebuffed the increasing criticism from the White House and the US media, including the Likud's staunchest supporters at Fox News, and indicated he is going ahead with his plans to speak before the US Congress in Washington as invited by Boehner. 

It all makes for great a great political drama, but would it really compromise US-Israeli relations in any way? Not likely.

Khaled Elgindy, a scholar at the Brookings Institution's Middle East Center in Washington describes the current spat between Obama and Netanyahu as good political theatre but nothing more. "The US-Israel relationship historically has been fairly insulated from differences in personality, politics or policy," Elgindy said, but added that, "Netanyahu is unlikely to succeed in sabotaging a potential Iran deal".

But on whether this Obama-Netanyahu rift could influence the Obama administration's ability, or willingness, to make 2015 the year of altering the status quo in the direction of Palestinian statehood and ending the occupation, Elgindy said it was “even more unlikely".

"The administration has shown no sign of changing its current approach. If there is any change in the status quo, it will be despite, not because of, the US."

It is in this context, perhaps less ironic that only a week before Netanyahu's scheme to sabotage Obama's efforts to reach a deal with Iran took the administration by a storm and cast a huge shadow over his masterful State of the Union address, Obama had called Netanyahu to tell him that it was illegitimate for the Palestinians to join the ICC and that his administration will do all it can prevent Israel from facing war crimes.