Ukraine Crisis Changes the Script for Netanyahu Visit and AIPAC Conference

The U.S. president’s mind and the media focus will be on the unfolding events in Crimea; painting Hassan Rohani as the ultimate bad guy may be a tough sell with Vladimir Putin in the spotlight.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

One of the favorite and most lingering conspiracy theories among loony anti-Semites and wacko Israel haters is the one about the Jewish-Zionist cabal that engineered the Monica Lewinsky scandal together with televangelist Jerry Falwell. It was January 1998, Netanyahu was in Washington for what was supposed to be a fateful showdown with then President Bill Clinton, the Lewinsky story conveniently surfaced and all hell broke loose.

From that point onwards, of course, the last thing on Clinton’s mind was Bibi and the last thing he needed was to aggravate the Israeli prime minister’s legions of supporters in Congress.

By the same nutty token, it may only be a matter of time before a similarly deranged connection is made between the upheaval in Ukraine and Netanyahu’s visit 16 years later for yet another tense faceoff in the Oval Office. After all, there’s no doubt that President Obama will be just as distracted as his Democratic predecessor when he meets with Netanyahu at the White House on Monday, but whether this is good or bad for the Jews, for the AIPAC conference which Netanyahu is attending or even for the prime minister himself – that is a question open to debate.

On the one hand, Obama will surely be seeking Congressional support for whatever moves he is compelled to take in the coming few days to offset Vladimir Putin’s belligerent moves in Crimea. The administration may thus lose some of its appetite to push Netanyahu at this specific juncture and to exacerbate tensions with AIPAC over Iran and the Palestinians. As it tries to project a deterring image to Moscow, the last thing the administration needs is a chorus of critics lambasting its previous vacillations.

Ironically, it is the one issue on which AIPAC saw eye to eye with the administration – Obama’s plan to attack Damascus after the August 21 chemical attack – that has most corroded the credibility of the president’s warnings against Putin’s involvement in Ukraine. Obama’s dizzying zigzag from war footing to Congressional approval to Putin’s last-minute chemical rescue plan was the backdrop for the spontaneous outbursts of snide cynicism that greeted Obama’s threat on Friday that “there will be costs” for any Russian incursion. More than any other single event, it is the Syrian debacle that cemented Putin’s image as a wily, tough and uncompromising leader and Obama as weak, indecisive and prone to empty threats.

Nonetheless, the diplomatic state of emergency and sense of developing crisis in Ukraine also means that there will be a reflex willingness to follow the president’s lead, as is the case in the first few days of any foreign confrontation. This is not the time for Netanyahu or for AIPAC leaders to attack the president or to portray his foreign policy as impotent or ineffectual, lest they be accused of weakening his hand at a time of national crisis. And Netanyahu will have to walk a further fine line by seeming to support Washington in general but doing so in a way that will not put Israel itself in Putin’s line of fire.

At the same time, Netanyahu will have a harder time diverting anyone’s attention to Iran or convincing American public opinion that Iran is the greatest danger facing the United States. It is Putin who is now cast as the ultimate bad guy for America, while Iran’s Hassan Rohani – who continued his charm offensive on Saturday by disavowing nuclear weapons and reprimanding Iranian generals for their bellicosity – isn’t even a distant second.

The Ukrainian crisis is also a mixed bag - if not a potential minefield - for AIPAC itself. The events in Europe will doubtlessly divert some of the bad publicity that the pro-Israel lobby has been getting in the wake of the stalled Iran sanctions bill which it supported, but will also deprive the organization of much of the media exposure it needed in order to project a sense of internal unity and renewed resolve. And while the Israeli-centered issues dear to AIPAC’s heart are bound to garner less attention than might have been expected, the forum could also serve as a podium for dramatic Ukraine-centered policy statements by either U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is scheduled to appear, or by President Obama himself, who isn’t.

And all this, before we even mention the difficulty of competing with Oscar night on Sunday and with the winter storm dubbed Titan which is supposed to descend on the capital on Monday. You can already conjure the headlines for some pundit’s commentary: “Washington freezes as winds of Cold War blow in Ukraine”. Or something to that effect.

Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office. Washington, D.C., March 5, 2012.Credit: Bloomberg

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