There has been an unusual development in US-Israel relations. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been invited by the speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner to give a speech to a joint session of Congress on February 11. This by itself is not too unusual. It is an honor given to foreign leaders and Israeli leaders have done so many times and the routine is that they are given multiple standing ovations by members who are eager to demonstrate to the Israel lobby how supportive they are of Israel.
What makes this particular occasion exceptional is that the invitation for the speech was negotiated between the speaker and the Israeli government and the White House was kept out of the loop until the speech was announced. This was a serious breach of protocol to bypass the president and secretary of state in issuing a visit to a foreign head of state, especially when John Kerry reportedly speaks with Netanyahu to or three times a day. Furthermore, Netanyahu is up for elections in March and typically foreign leaders are not invited close to their elections to avoid having the speech serve as part of their election campaign or to suggest that the US backs that person.
But the more serious problem is that it was clear that Netanyahu was going to use the speech to urge Congress to scuttle the negotiations that the Obama administration is having with Iran over its nuclear program, and that he would urge Congress to impose stiff new sanctions on Iran that would pretty much guarantee that Iran would walk away from the table. The White House is apparently furious that Netanyahu was using this means to undercut its negotiations.
We know that there seems to be nothing that the nation of Israel can do that will cause the US to offer even the mildest criticism of its actions. It can steal Palestinian land, create Bantustan-type cantonments in the Occupied Territories, treat Arab-Israelis as second-class citizens, strangle and starve Gaza and periodically bomb them, and yet continue to be the recipients of vast amounts of money from the US.
But this move seems to have gone too far and there have been rumblings of deep discontent even among those who are the most stalwart supporters of Israel in the US and who have in the past defied the presidents of their own party if the Israel lobby asks them to. There is deep concern that the way this speech came about will be seen as too openly insolent towards the US president and thus is jeopardizing the unquestioning support that Israel gets from both parties in Congress and the mainstream media by making US-Israeli relations into a partisan political football.
The White House is signaling its increasing anger at this move and the numbers of people and groups washing their hands of this speech and calling on it to be canceled is quite extraordinary. Even Fox News, that most loyal supporter of Israel and critic of Obama, has joined in the condemnation. Even AIPAC, the leading arm of the Israel lobby, and some neoconservatives are backing away. The only ones who are still pushing for the speech are the hardline neoconservatives and Netanyahu backers who don’t want any negotiations with Iran and want to go to war against that nation, something that would be a total disaster.
What this episode indicates is that the power of the Israel lobby over the US government has led to a level of hubris that has caused Netanyahu, like Icarus, to reach too far. The current betting seems to be that some face-saving way of canceling the speech will be found and that Ron Dermer, the current Israeli ambassador to the US, will be fingered as a key person responsible for this diplomatic fiasco and will be fall guy and shown the door.