Angered by Netanyahu’s invitation to address Congress, the White House is now quietly working to unsettle the prime minister before elections in Israel.
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
The White House, Secretary of State John Kerry, and assorted U.S. officials have repeatedly made clear that Washington will not intervene in Israeli politics and elections. And, indeed, under normal circumstances, non-intervention is the rule.
But what if Israel suddenly and blatantly intervened in America’s politics? Would an administration already fed up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and very much hoping for a new leader to come out of Israel’s March 17 elections — use such an intervention to try to tip what promises to be a close vote to a rival?
Welcome to regime change, Obama-style. There are few opportunities to change the mullahcracy in Tehran. But Jerusalem may be another story. By accepting Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress — now widely seen as a real bungle — the prime minister has given the Obama administration an opening. And you can bet the White House is taking advantage to make it unmistakably clear that Bibi is bad for the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
The White House has already made clear there will no meeting with President Obama, assuming that Netanyahu sticks to his word and actually shows up in early March. The good news for Netanyahu is that the two won’t have another bad meeting. The not-so-good news is that the White House door will be closed to a sitting Israeli prime minister — that doesn’t happen often. While White House spokesman Josh Earnest has said that the reason is that we’re too close to an Israeli election, that’s a stretch. Trust me: If Obama and Bibi were buddies, they’d be hugging in the Oval Office. Just look at former President Bill Clinton’s efforts to sway the 1996 election in Shimon Peres’s favor, which included seeing him at the White House. This close to an Israeli election, a freeze-out can’t help the incumbent.
Meanwhile, the administration wasted little time in backgrounding the press on how angry it was at Israel’s ambassador, Ron Dermer, who was apparently the architect of the congressional invitation. A senior administration official said that Dermer had put Netanyahu’s political aspirations ahead of the U.S.-Israel relationship. And let’s be clear: An attack on Dermer is an attack on Netanyahu. It’s rare to get that personal. Now, Dermer — like his boss — is getting a cold shoulder in Washington, another orchestrated signal of a dysfunctional U.S.-Israeli relationship. Indeed, U.S. Amb. Dan Shapiro had a tough meeting with Israeli officials last week. There will ultimately be a price for this, he was quoted as saying.
Vice President Joe Biden won’t be attending Netanyahu’s Washington speech either. That such a pro-Israeli stalwart will be missing from Congress during Bibi’s address gives other Democrats cover not to attend. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has already indicated he won’t attend, as have others. And that list will likely grow. There’s no other way to read Biden’s absence than an orchestrated signal from Washington that something is very wrong in the relationship with Israel — and that the White House is working to deny Netanyahu any gains from the speech.
Administration officials won’t be meeting with Netanyahu. But they are meeting with his key Labor party rival, Isaac Herzog. The Israeli press has reported Herzog’s informal meetings with Biden and Kerry on the margins of the Munich Security Conference this past weekend and gave prominent coverage to his remarks. If that adds doubts among Israeli voters about Netanyahu’s capacity to deal with Israel’s closest ally, so much the better. Not surprisingly, Herzog took the opportunity to trumpet the important of the relationship, noting that Israeli security is dependent on strategic trust with the United States — something that requires both countries’ top leaders to be on good terms.
But is this just a tempest in a teacup or a concerted effort to undermine Bibi, if not to sway the election against him? Secretary of State James Baker used to say that he didn’t ride in on a bale of hay yesterday. And I suspect neither did most FP readers.
Will it work? Well, Baker himself might have some insights. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin defeated Yitzhak Shamir in a very close election. And one reason was clearly a result of the effort by Baker and President George H. W. Bush — denying the Israeli prime minister housing loan guarantees to demonstrate how unhappy they were over Israel’s settlement activity — which signaled to Israelis that Shamir had mismanaged the relationship with Washington. On the other hand, Bill Clinton’s efforts to help Peres against Netanyahu in the 1996 election campaign didn’t work. Other issues — Hamas terror, a badly run campaign, and Lebanon — proved determinative.
There are many variables in determining the outcome of the March 17 elections. And clearly Barack Obama isn’t the key issue in the campaign. Indeed, Obama isn’t nearly as beloved as Clinton in Israel: A January 2014 poll indicated that only one in five trusted the president on Iran and a full 50 percent worried about his views on Israel. In any event, Israelis know that he’ll only occupy the White House for a couple of more years. But they also deeply understand that the U.S.-Israel relationship is important, particularly with the region melting down. In a close election, the perception that the incumbent has made hash of it might very well have an impact.
And you’d better believe that the White House is aware of that fact. Both Obama and Kerry would love to see Netanyahu out and Labor’s duo of Herzog and Tzipi Livni in. And they’re doing everything they reasonably can — short of running campaign ads — to bring that about.
Heidi Levine-Pool/Getty Images