The clumsy move by Israel’s ambassador in Washington and the U.S. speaker of the House, who was also motivated by narrow political interests, has perhaps done the worst damage ever to Israel’s “special relationship” with the United States. This isn’t another passing incident with a whiff of that charming Israeli chutzpah, it’s a deep crisis that will take a decade to remedy. It has already irreversibly damaged the effort to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
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The harsh American reaction reflects growing anger toward a country that is dependent on the United States for its security and prosperity yet continues to spit in America’s face. This time it has really crossed the line.
Since Israel’s founding, American Jewish leaders and every Israeli government have made a supreme effort to ensure that Israel is viewed as a bipartisan matter, above political discord. This bipartisan support was a foundation of the special relationship. The announcement by Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers that they will be skipping Netanyahu’s speech is disturbing. The thought of the vice president’s seat, directly behind the speaker’s podium facing the cameras, remaining empty should be nauseating officials in Jerusalem.
The planned speech, essentially an attempt to mobilize Congress against the administration, puts Israel right between the two — a highly irresponsible act doomed to failure. Since the failed effort to halt the sale of AWACs planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981, no Israeli government has sought to marshal Congress for a head-on confrontation with the administration.
The damage might have been tolerable if Netanyahu’s address to Congress could achieve its declared aim – to prevent the administration from signing a “bad” deal with Iran that could place Israel in mortal danger. But this is clearly not the case, and it’s also clear the real motive for the visit is the prime minister’s attempt to use Congress for his own political needs just ahead of an election.
The move has already backfired. Ten Democratic lawmakers have withdrawn their support for new legislation and announced they will support the president’s position of waiting until the late-March target date for a nuclear deal before legislating any new sanctions. Legislation that hitherto had bipartisan support instantly collapsed; now it’s not clear a majority can be forged to pass sanctions. If such legislation does pass, it will be by a narrow Republican vote on an issue that Israel worked for two decades to keep bipartisan.
Moreover, in the current atmosphere, it will even be hard to muster bipartisan support for sanctions if the talks fail. With his own hands, Netanyahu, who made blocking Iran’s nuclear aspirations the cornerstone of his foreign policy, has destroyed the linchpin of American support for this cause.
Israel-U.S. relations rest on very strong foundations and will not fall apart for now. The administration will continue to support Israel on a range of issues, albeit with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
But Netanyahu, who purports to be the big expert on everything American, subordinated Israel’s most crucial strategic interests to election considerations, and the repercussions will endure for some time. Whenever the administration has room to weigh various options, it will remember the prime minister’s moves. When we need the president in the next round against Hezbollah or Hamas, in further dealings with Iran, in negotiations with the Palestinians, at the International Criminal Court or at the UN Security Council, will he be in any hurry to help?
It obviously won’t be easy for Netanyahu to admit his grave mistake and acknowledge the serious damage done. The only thing more dangerous for Israel than Iranian nukes is undermined relations with America. It is vital, therefore, that he find some pretext to postpone the visit. If he cites scheduling issues or pins the blame on some bureaucrat like a certain ambassador, that would do just fine.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council, is completing a book on Israel’s defense doctrine.