Bibi’s Reckless Gamble

Other than the congressional Republicans who are playing a supporting (and somewhat clueless) role in the drama, it’s hard to find much of anybody who thinks Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress–made following a deliberate snub of the White House–on the brink of Israeli elections is a good idea. As Joel Greenberg of McClatchy News reports from Jerusalem, Bibi’s getting more and more heat from home about the ploy, which could imperil his party’s chances in a very close election.

But as The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg (not a pundit who’s entirely unsympathetic to Netanyahu, particularly on Iran policy) argues today in a column that is going to be quoted a lot (with the blunt headline “The Netanyahu Disaster”) it’s here where Bibi’s gambit is most likely to backfire, with terrible long-term consequences for Israel:

Faced with this conundrum—an American president who he believes is willing to strike a flawed deal with Iran—Netanyahu has made the second-worst choice he could make. He has not attacked Iran, which is good—an Israeli attack holds the promise of disaster—but he has decided to ruin his relations with Obama….

Netanyahu appears to believe that his mission is singular, but Israeli prime ministers, in fact, have two main tasks. The first is to protect their country from existential threats. The second: To work very hard to stay on the good side of the president and people of the United States. Success in accomplishing this first task is sometimes predicated on achieving this second task.

Israel has been, for several decades, a bipartisan cause in Washington. Bipartisan support accounts for the ease with which Israeli prime ministers have historically been heard in Washington; it accounts for the generous aid packages Israel receives; and it also explains America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.

Netanyahu’s management of his relationship with Obama threatens the bipartisan nature of Israel’s American support. His Dermer-inspired, Boehner-enabled end-run has alienated three crucially important constituencies. First, the administration itself: Netanyahu’s estrangement from the Obama White House now appears to be permanent. It will be very difficult for Netanyahu to make the White House hear his criticisms of whatever deal may one day be reached with Iran.

Netanyahu has also alienated many elected Democrats, including Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill. One Jewish member of Congress told me that he felt humiliated and angered by Netanyahu’s ploy to address Congress “behind the president’s back.” A non-Jewish Democratic elected official texted me over the weekend to say that the damage Netanyahu is doing to Israel’s relationship with the U.S. may be “irreparable.”

A larger group that Netanyahu risks alienating is American Jewry, or at least the strong majority of American Jews that has voted for Obama twice. Netanyahu’s decision to pit U.S. political party against U.S. political party—because that is what his end-run does—puts American Jewish supporters of Israel in a messy, uncomfortable spot, and it is not in Israel’s interest to place American Jews in a position in which they have to choose between their president and the leader of a Jewish state whose behavior is making them queasy.

So Bibi’s alienating Obama, Democrats and American Jews, and all he’s getting from it is at best mixed reviews back home and a new bond with congressional Republicans who have no control over foreign policy and will fawn over any right-wing leader of Israel with no extra encouragement. Other than all that, it’s working brilliantly.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.