Don't Blame Bibi; Blame the Ayatollahs

The Congress speech spat isn't about Netanyahu and Obama; it's about the Republicans spurning the accord Democrats are seeking with Iran.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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A young Iranian girl holds a portrait of the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, February 1, 2015.
A young Iranian girl holds a portrait of the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, February 1, 2015.Credit: AFP
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

It looks like the next chapter in the soap opera of the Obama administration’s relations with Israel is going to be "The Blame Game." There is little doubt anymore that relations between the administration and Israel have reached a nadir, but whom to blame? Does the fault rest with the State of Israel or merely with its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu? Or does it rest with U.S. President Barack Obama or his secretary of state, John Kerry? Or all of them? Or none?

The question was addressed over the weekend by Republican Senator John McCain, in an appearance on CNN. The senator, who chairs one of the most powerful committees (armed services), was asked whether it was a good idea for the speaker of the House, John Boehner, to invite Netanyahu without going through the White House. McCain dodged the question by saying that, “given the way relations are between the president and the speaker and the majority leader, Senator McConnell, it’s not surprising.”

Boehner didn’t need White House permission, McCain reckoned, particularly in light of the poor relations between Congress and the White House. There is, McCain said, “a real crisis going on.” Mark though what he identified as a crisis: “these negotiations with Iran, which many of us believe are already fatally flawed.” It was to “the overriding concern” with the Iran talks that McCain laid Boehner’s desire to have Netanyahu “appear before the American people and tell them about the dangers of a very bad agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons.”

I thought that was well put. The CNN host, Dana Bash, then asked about the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, which is, Bash noted, widely known to be “not great.” Replied McCain: “It’s the worst that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and that in itself is a tragedy.”

As to why, McCain reckoned that Obama “had very unrealistic expectations about the degree of cooperation he would get from Israel, particularly on the Palestinian issue as well as the nuclear issue with Iran.” He insisted he was “not putting the entire blame on the president of the United States.” But, he said, “No other president has had such a difficult relationship with the state of Israel since it became a country.” Not even, he insisted under questioning, George H. W. Bush.

Bush’s fight was over $10 billion in American loan guarantees, designed ostensibly to help in the resettlement of Soviet Jews, but wanted measures to curb their use in West Bank settlements. In the ensuing fight the 41st president complained he was “one lonely little guy” up against “1,000 lobbyists.” He was brought up short not by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, but by the leader the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Shoshana Cardin. What strikes me about that fight is that it was ended on terms that were amicable.

Whether George H. W. Bush’s presidency marked the previous nadir in American Israel relations is not so clear, incidentally. There was, after all, also Suez, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower forced a retreat from the confrontation with Egypt that had been precipitated by Britain, France and Israel. In hindsight, it is incredible that America sided with the Soviet regime and the United Nations against Israel and, for that matter, Britain – particularly in an engagement in the Cold War.

All the more reason, though, to keep a level head in the current crisis. Things are not always what they seem. My own view is that historians will look back on the current fight as being not about America’s relations with Israel nor about Netanyahu’s policies or style, nor even Obama’s standing with American Jews (or vice versa). This is a fight about the relations between the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House over what is, at bottom, a difference of opinion about the accord that the Democrats are seeking with Iran.

On this question, Israel – via Netanyahu, its elected prime minister – has all the standing in the world to be heard in Congress. The doctrine to which Netanyahu has been hewing, after all, was originally enunciated by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who proclaimed that Israel’s attack on Saddam Hussein’s reactor in Baghdad would be “a precedent for every future government of Israel.” Another way to look at it is that, at the end of the day, the blame in this crisis will attach to neither Israel nor Netanyahu nor America nor Obama but to the mullahs in Iran, who have been the aggressor in this confrontation from the start.

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.



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