Before the polls open in Israel, here’s a late tip from America. Whatever one makes of the drama in Washington — the feud between the White House and the Congress — it’s not about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s not about Likud or Labor, and it’s unlikely to end after Tuesday’s election.
There is a much deeper, constitutional battle under way in America, the heart of which lies in Congress' efforts, in the face of an administration bent on retreating overseas, to assert its constitutional standing as the primary author of foreign policy. Israel is not so much a party to this feud as it is a bystander.
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That is one of the things we are witnessing this week. Netanyahu has come and gone from his third address to a joint meeting of Congress. U.S. President Barack Obama has written it off as nothing new. AIPAC has gone home. Yet the White House and Congress are right back at it, letting loose an astonishing flurry of letters of the kind quarreling partners exchange when they can no longer stand talking to one another.
This began with the now-famous letter to the Iranian mullahs from 47 Republicans in the Senate, organized by a freshman from Arkansas, Tom Cotton. The letter warned the Iranians that neither Obama nor any other administration could bind the Senate of the United States — or even future presidents — absent a vote in the Congress.
That is no more secret than the Constitution itself, of which millions of copies have been distributed in the past 200 years. Yet one would have thought that, in publishing this letter, the Senate had defected. Some conservatives were uneasy: The Wall Street Journal called it “a distraction;” my own Web site, the New York Sun, dubbed it “an error of judgment.” The liberals were beside themselves. “Republican idiocy,” the New York Times called it.
Then the mullahs replied, with a bizarre letter that led me, for one, to modify my thinking. Maybe Senator Cotton wasn’t as dumb as everyone had been suggesting, as I put it in a column in the New York Post. For he’d smoked out the Iranians into laying out their game plan for trapping the United States in the United Nations.
What the mullahs are making clear is a strategy that covets not a bilateral deal with America, but one with the United Nations. They are counting on the fact that these negotiations center on the five permanent members (the P5) of the Security Council. The mullahs expect the deal to be backed up with a full UN Security Council resolution.
Their letter seemed to suggest that since the United Nations is itself a creature created by treaty, America would be bound by a resolution passed there. I don’t think there’s so much as a traffic court in America that would buy that theory, never mind the Supreme Court of the United States.
The very thought of it, though, prompted Senator Bob Corker, who was not among the 47 senators signing the letter to the mullahs, to rush a letter over to the White House on Thursday. In it, the Republican from Tennessee demanded that President Obama disclose whether he “is considering going to the United Nations Security Council without coming to the Congress first.”
By late Saturday evening, March 14, Obama had responded, via a letter from his White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, agreeing that Congress would get to vote on “any comprehensive deal.” He acknowledged that only Congress can “terminate the existing Iran statutory sanctions,” though he made plain a plan to use “waivers included by Congress” to at least temporarily suspend existing sanctions “until after Iran has complied with its commitments for an extended period of time.”
That is a slippery threat. The Obama/McDonough letter basically warned the Congress that it should be patient and not rock the boat. If the White House gets its way, I doubt Congress will get a chance to act before Obama leaves town for his retirement.
In the constitutional contest, it doesn’t matter whom Israel elects as prime minister. It’s not about Israel. The Jewish state wasn’t even mentioned by Corker, McDonough or Cotton. No, this fight is primal. “Obama clash with Republican Senate over Iran would be epic,” is the headline on a column I wrote in this space in October. It wouldn’t surprise me if the fight that is welling up in Washington now mushroomed into the kind of drama that consumed the Senate early in the Eisenhower years.
Then the very logic of the United Nations treaty began to come into question. Conservatives sought to amend the Constitution itself to make it clear American law outranked international agreements. What an irony it would be if a fight over how to stop the program Iran is using to make a weapon to destroy the Jewish state were to ignite once again doubts about the world body that gave birth to the Jewish state in the first place.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of the Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.