Israel may be losing U.S. President Barack Obama as an ally, but the Jewish State is turning out to have a friend in Speaker of the House John Boehner. This strikes me as no small thing. The friendship is underscored by the announcement that Boehner, who is the third-highest-ranking elected official in America, will be visiting Jerusalem at the end of this month. It seems that if the White House wants to play hardball on Israel, the Congress is prepared to bat against him.
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It is a remarkable situation. Boehner’s office — and Israeli sources — are noting the trip was being planned before Israel’s election and, even, before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the Joint Meeting of Congress. The Ohio Republican, who was last in Israel before Obama was president, said via his spokesman that he “looks forward to visiting the country, discussing our shared priorities for peace and security in the region, and further strengthening the bond between the United States and Israel.”
Such bland talk is going to do little to disguise the drama. The last time an American speaker went overseas on a mission that was cross-wise with the president was Nancy Pelosi’s sit-down with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2007. The Wall Street Journal greeted the meeting by publishing an op-ed piece by one of President Ronald Reagan's former assistant secretaries of state, Robert Turner, in which he suggested that Pelosi may have committed a felony under the Logan Act and could in theory be prosecuted in a criminal court.
That was a stretch, even though Nancy Pelosi was taking tea with a terrorist tyrant. Hot as tempers are running today, no one is suggesting that Boehner will, should, or could be prosecuted for visiting Israel. Neither, though, is anyone denying that his pending visit ups the ante in the battle between the Obama administration and Congress over the pact the president is pursuing with Iran. It is just a highly unusual situation when the White House wants an agreement with a hostile power and Congress doesn’t.
The centrality of Iran to this feud is underlined in what is emerging in Washington as the article of the year. It’s a dispatch in the online publication Mosaic called “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy” authored by Michael Doran, a former aide on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. Doran sketches an Obama quite different from the man-without-a-strategy that he is often lampooned as being. He sees an Obama who has been pursuing from the beginning of his presidency a strategy that seeks to position Iran as a regional power.
The article is rocketing around Republican policy and political circles, and no doubt some Democratic ones, because the Doran theory would explain a lot — why, say, Obama stood silent in 2009 as the regime in Tehran suppressed and gassed the pro-democracy protesters during the Green Movement. And why, for that matter, a picayune breach of protocol between the president and the speaker over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has escalated to such a degree.
It’s not the protocol, but the substance that is so explosive in the feud between the Congress and the president. Obama wants to appease Iran because he is uncomfortable with Israel being America’s key ally in the Middle East. This is why he brought in as secretary of state a man with John Kerry’s past. It’s why he picked a critic of Israel, Chuck Hagel, to replace Leon Panetta. Doran sees an Obama who has been pursuing from the beginning of his presidency a strategy that seeks to position Iran as a regional power.
In constitutional terms, it is not so scandalous for an American president to advance a new foreign policy strategy. Nixon made his trip to Communist China. Reagan moved from détente to a strategy of rollback against the Soviet Union. It is hard, though, to recall any demarche that has been pursued by so pointedly cutting out the Congress — particularly a Congress that has made plain its objections. No wonder the highest-ranking official in Congress is making a visit to Israel.
For Boehner, the visit also sends a political signal at home. We are but a year and a half from the next U.S. presidential election. Boehner arose from Ohio, without which it is hard to win the presidency of the United States. He is political master who comprehends the chance for the GOP to make headway with the Jewish community, which has traditionally voted Democratic. No less a publication than the New York Times Magazine is running a story under the headline “Do the Democrats and Israel Have a Future Together?”
One cautionary note is that Congress can be a heartbreaker. It collapsed during the Vietnam War, turning against an ally in the thick of a fight into which it had taken the country by an overwhelming vote. Kerry himself knows all about that betrayal, as he was part of organizing it. But the need for caution detracts little from the significance of Boehner’s visit. It is a moment to remember the adage that the president proposes but the Congress disposes.
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.