Last Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro met with senior Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem and gave a chilling description of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current status in Washington, in light of his planned speech to a joint session of Congress.
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Shapiro told them of the White House’s fury at the trick Netanyahu cooked up with the Republican Party leadership; of the U.S. administration’s total loss of faith in Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer; and of the grave impact this would have on relations between the Obama Administration and a future Netanyahu government. “Ultimately, this will have a price,” a source briefed on the meeting quoted Shapiro as saying.
And it’s not just the White House. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who visited Capitol Hill last week, was stunned by the depth of the anger he found. He met with Democratic congressmen who are sworn friends of Israel, but now feel betrayed by Israel’s prime minister. “I’ve never encountered such tension, even when I came a few years ago to talk with congressmen about freeing” Jonathan Pollard, Edelstein said.
Nor is it just the Democrats. Many Republicans are also repulsed by Netanyahu’s maneuver, even if political considerations bar them from saying so openly. And U.S. Jewish leaders who are considered close to Netanyahu – like Abe Foxman, who urged Netanyahu this weekend to cancel the speech – are tearing their hair out with frustration.
Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement that he will miss the speech is what the Americans call a “big deal.” Biden is perhaps Netanyahu’s best friend in the administration. If his seat is empty during Netanyahu’s speech, that sends a resounding message. And it will almost certainly cause many other Democrats to follow suit.
Like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah after the Second Lebanon War of 2006, if Netanyahu had known what would happen, he would surely have let this idea die aborning. And he knows very well that, even now, the right thing to do would be to cancel the speech. But the humiliation, and consequent political damage, that canceling would cause has led him to keep driving the car into the wall.
The really bad news is that even if Netanyahu does cancel the speech, most of the damage to the U.S.-Israeli relationship has already been done. A comic campaign video released by Netanyahu’s Likud party yesterday shows him talking on the phone with the U.S. president. What’s truly funny is the idea that Netanyahu will ever have another phone call with the president as long as Obama remains in office.
Despite Netanyahu’s claim that he must address Congress to warn about the Iranian threat, his conduct in recent weeks has caused incalculable damage to international efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. At this critical moment in the negotiations, when maximum coordination between America and Israel is vital, relations between the prime minister and the U.S. president are at an unprecedented low.
The crisis has diverted attention in both Washington and Jerusalem from the real goal: obtaining an agreement that will prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. And not only has this crisis damaged Israel’s standing in America and worldwide, but it has also made Iran think it is winning.
Unknowingly, Netanyahu has become the Iranians’ secret weapon. If he didn't exist, the Iranians would have to invent him. Destroying the strategic alliance with America would be a real existential threat to Israel, but so far, he’s much closer to leaving scorched earth in Washington than he is to stopping Iran’s centrifuges. In this situation, Iranian leaders don’t have to do a thing but sit in front of the television, eat popcorn and laugh.