The three of us came to Washington in the same year, 1982. I, Mel Levine as a Democratic member of Congress from California; I, Oded Eran, as a diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in charge of relations with the U.S. Congress; and Benjamin Netanyahu, as deputy chief of mission at the embassy. Relations between the United States and Israel were tense after two years of disagreements over Jerusalem, Lebanon, the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the sale of sophisticated weapons to certain Arab countries. All of us – Republicans and Democrats, pro-Israel American leaders and Israeli officials, including Netanyahu – were concerned and even alarmed by the erosion in the bilateral relationship.
For the next ten years, under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and with Democrats controlling the House and, much of the time, the Senate, we all worked to improve the relations, reversing the negative trend of the first two years of the Reagan administration. The key to the success of this effort was bipartisan cooperation in the U.S. Congress, constructive dialogue between Israel and the White House and U.S. Congress, open channels of communication between the governments, and the wisdom of senior Israeli and American politicians and officials who searched for solutions to sensitive problems. Among these leaders were Moshe Arens, first as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and then as its defense minister; George Shultz, as U.S. secretary of state; and the late Yitzhak Rabin, as Israel's defense minister. Our combined efforts strengthened and expanded the unwritten alliance between the countries.
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The impending visit this March by the incumbent Israeli prime minister – the same Benjamin Netanyahu – breaks away from these norms and from the fundamental principles that form the bedrock of Israeli-U.S. relations. This relationship should never be owned in the United States by one party, nor should it ever become a political football between Republicans and Democrats. Furthermore, both the United States and Israel should refrain from interfering in the domestic politics of one another.
Netanyahu – who cannot be accused of not understanding U.S. politics or the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship – is guilty of all three sins. He is acting to make the relations a partisan issue; playing Congress against the White House; and interfering in U.S. domestic politics and inviting interference by the United States in Israeli politics. He may justify this with the deep concern that he and the Israeli people share that Iran – with or without an agreement – will be allowed to creep into nuclear military capability. He has repeatedly asserted this concern.
But as Israel’s premier, he also has a duty to preserve the U.S. government's support, goodwill and readiness to stand by Israel. Netanyahu wants the United States to adopt a tougher stand in the negotiations with Iran, yet he will not achieve this by antagonizing the U.S. president and going over his head to address Congress. One can only hope that the prime minister's show of force against the U.S. administration will not get it so angered as to weaken its very strong position on a variety of problems facing Israel in the international arena.
It is not too late to change the situation. Netanyahu and the leaders of the House and Senate could agree, for example, to replace his speech with a meeting with the bipartisan leadership. Such a scenario would allow all sides to save face, and, most importantly, prevent U.S.-Israeli ties from facing serious, long-term and unnecessary damage during this very critical juncture in the Middle East and Europe – where both Israel and the United States have deep concerns and interests.
Mel Levine is a former senior Democratic member of the Middle East subcommittee of the House of Representatives from California. Oded Eran is Israel's former ambassador to Jordan and the European Union and is currently a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel.