Gov. Officials / Politics / Presidency

Where the Power Really Is: Netanyahu’s Visit and its Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

John Boehner’s recent invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak in front of a joint meeting of Congress in March has infuriated the Obama Administration. The White House claims they were never consulted about the invitation and did not know that Netanyahu was coming until Boehner announced it publically, which Obama Press Secretary Josh Earnst labeled a “departure from protocol.” The secretary’s claim is absolutely ridiculous. Even if Netanyahu and Boehner did consult the White House, it is unlikely that the administration would deny Netanyahu the ability to come to the U.S. To do so would have drawn harsh criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, due to the bipartisan nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The President’s anger over inviting a foreign leader to lobby Congress is entirely hypocritical since he invited British Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby members of Congress to discourage increasing sanctions for the past few weeks. Why is it okay for the President to deploy a foreign leader as a lobbyist, but when Congress does the same thing, the White House calls foul?

This is just another issue in which Obama believes that he can wield around the sword of executive authority and ignore Congress. In fact, President Obama was recently quoted telling Congress to “hold your fire” over Iran sanctions. Threatened by the Republican Majority in both chambers, Obama will ignore the wishes of a large bipartisan group of lawmakers, many of which come from his own party, in order to create his legacy, all while possibly jeopardizing the safety of our closest ally in the Middle East.

But in addition to its quarrels with Speaker Boehner, the Administration is also taking aim at Netanyahu. One White House official was quoted by Israeli paper Haaretz saying, “He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.” Both American and Israeli liberals alike have criticized the visit, saying it will harm the U.S.-Israel relationship.

But will it? While it may have been disrespectful not to inform the White House of his visit, the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been anything but respectful. Last October, one White House Official referred to the Israeli leader as “chickenshit.” There was also that little spat when Obama agreed with Former French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy when he called Netanyahu a “liar.”

While it is important to have the support of the White House, it is not always a necessity. Since Obama was first elected to the presidency in 2008, Congress has been extremely pro-Israel, passing dozens of bills supporting Israel on everything from foreign aid to Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu understands that the President is in the final stretch of his term. Both chambers of Congress are Republican, strongly opposing continuing negotiations with Iran. In addition, many Democrats oppose negotiations as well. The current Iran sanctions bill, sponsored by New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez and Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk, has broad support from both parties.

Senate Democrats supporting the bill gave the President until March 24 to reach a political framework in the negotiations with Iran or else they will pass sanctions with a veto-proof majority. Based on the slow progress that negotiations have had up to this point, including two negotiation extensions, it is unlikely that such a political framework will be reached in time. Netanyahu wants to appeal to the branch of the U.S. government that will listen to him, and that is Congress.

The late March deadline gives both Netanyahu and the rest of the pro-Israel community the opportunity to plead the case for sanctions to reluctant Democrats. Not only will the Prime Minister be giving his speech to Congress on March 3, but also the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobby and one of the largest lobby shops in Washington, will be holding its annual policy conference from March 1-3. On the last day of the event, more than 13,000 attendees will be sent to the Capitol to lobby on behalf of sanctions. That night, Netanyahu will be giving his speech urging Congress to increase sanctions on Iran. If it is anything like Netanyahu’s last speech to Congress (in which he received 29 standing ovations), then this double punch will certainly hold large influence over the outcome of the sanctions vote.