It should never cease to amaze us when smart people do dumb things. But one of the dumbest we've seen in a long time is Speaker John Boehner's inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress and publicly disagree with President Obama on Iran. It was dumb of Boehner to extend the invitation, and even dumber for Netanyahu to accept.
Let's put it in context. There's no stronger or more important relationship between any two nations on the planet than between the United States and Israel. It's been that way under every president, Democrat and Republican, since Harry Truman. It's that way today under President Obama. Yet Prime Minister Netanyahu now threatens to undermine, if not destroy, that relationship – and alienate American Jews – by playing politics over Iran.
Actually, the issue is far bigger than Iran. Negotiations with Iran have reached a critical point. The United States and our partners have set a March 2015 deadline on reaching a deal for Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The fact that we're so close is significant. But, clearly, Iran wouldn't even be at the table if they weren't hurting from sanctions already in place.
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So why not pile on more sanctions? There's the rub. Most Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain, and even some Democrats believe that enacting more sanctions now would force Iran to make a deal. President Obama, backed by former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, argues that slapping more sanctions on Iran now would kill the talks. He's vowed to veto any new sanctions bill, while promising to impose additional sanctions if negotiations fail.
OK, this is an important issue on which honest men and women disagree. But here's the bigger point: You don't invite the leader of any foreign country to walk into Congress and poke the president of the United States in the eye. First, because there's no need to. John McCain, John Boehner and others are perfectly capable of making the argument for more sanctions. Why do they need Bibi Netanyahu?
It's also a serious breach of protocol. Relations with heads of state are handled by the White House and the State Department, not partisan leaders in Congress, for a very good reason: Because throwing any foreign leader into the middle of a policy debate in this country is a dangerous mix of foreign policy and partisan politics, which is true for both Boehner and Netanyahu. Boehner's counting on Netanyahu to dump on Obama and accuse him of being soft on national security. Netanyahu wants to use our Congress as a platform to help him win re-election, just two weeks later. Both are abusing the honor of addressing a joint session of Congress, and willing to undermine the strong bonds between the United States and Israel, to play their cheap political games.
For Netanyahu, it's a monumentally stupid move, orchestrated by Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States and a former Republican Party operative. As the Times of Israel reports, when Israel wants something from the United States, it normally makes three stops: AIPAC, Jewish members of Congress and the White House. Netanyahu reportedly consulted none of them before accepting Boehner's invitation.
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But here's what neither Boehner nor Netanyahu counted on: Their blatant maneuver has already backfired, both here and in Israel. Ten Senate Democrats, led by New Jersey's Bob Menendez, all of whom once opposed President Obama on the timing of sanctions, have dropped their opposition because they don't want to appear to be siding with Netanyahu over Obama. Netanyahu's also angered America's Jewish community, 70 percent of whom self-identify as Democrats and 69 percent of whom voted for Obama in 2012. And in Israel, Michael Oren, Dermer's predecessor as ambassador to the U.S. and now a candidate for the Knesset, has told Netanyahu: "It's advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House."
For Netanyahu, that's the saving grace. His speech isn't scheduled until March 3. Plenty of time for him to catch a cold, come down with the flu, or get laryngitis – any excuse to cancel his ill-advised appearance. After all, if he's really interested in what's best for Israel, he'll get a lot more out of the White House than he'll ever get out of John Boehner.