Monday 2 March 2015

A Storm in a Teacup, or Diplomatic Snub?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to Washington this week to present his case on Iran to a joint session of Congress on 3 March.  This is despite huge pressure that was put on him, both in the USA and in Israel not to go ahead, or at least to postpone his trip to Capitol Hill.  Having accepted House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner's invitation to make the address, it always seemed unlikely that Netanyahu would change his mind.  Many Israelis seem undecided as to whether this is a good or bad thing, and whether this is likely to do more harm than good to already troubled relations between the US and Israel.

The prime minister was certainly justified in accepting what appeared to be a genuine invitation from a legitimate source.  House Speaker Boehner is within his rights to invite guests to address Congress, and Boehner's office has issued a statement confirming that the invitation was already well on its way to Netanyahu before the Israeli election date was set early in December 2014.  The prime minister has used every possible opportunity to make known his (and Israel's) opposition to the agreement currently under negotiation between Iran and the P5+1 countries, and it would have come as no surprise to anybody that Bibi was quick to jump at this opportunity as well.  The timing of the invitation was particularly attractive, to address the US lawmakers just prior to the date that was set for the finalisation of the agreement.  Where the discussions with Iran are concerned, Boehner and Netanyahu are on the same side of the fence in opposing US President Barack Obama's seemingly single-minded intention to come to an agreement with Iran almost at any price.  If Boehner wished to find a like-minded international leader to address the US Congress on this matter, Netanyahu was the most obvious person to turn to.  Like Netanyahu, Boehner fears that giving Iran the green light to enrich Uranium with an official international stamp of approval, even at low levels of enrichment, would destabilise the balance of power in the Middle East and the world.  Obama's desire to establish a legacy before leaving the White House next year, could leave a most dangerous problem for Israel and the western world following his departure.

It is easy to be suspicious about Obama's reaction to Netanyahu's visit to Washington, and his his true intentions behind the reaction.  We know that Obama has little time or respect for Netanyahu, and this visit to Washington, coming as it does at the invitation of Obama's arch-rival in the Congress, is a perfect opportunity for Obama to make his negative feelings for Bibi more public.  The White House has accused Netanyahu of not following protocol by not advising them of his visit to Washington.  The prime minister's office says that the same protocol was followed this time as for previous visits.  John Boehner has admitted not following protocol on his part, and he purposefully did not advise the White House of Netanyahu's upcoming visit.  He says that the reason for this, was the fear that the White House would make every effort to undermine the visit in an attempt to prevent the visit from going ahead.  This is precisely what we saw happening when details of the visit were made known in the press.  The administration moved immediately to say that no meetings would be accommodated between the prime minister and administration officials.  Obama went further by hiding behind the fact that the administration has a policy of not meeting with foreign visitors in the weeks leading up to a general election.  The Obama administration also announced that they would no longer provide updates to Israeli government officials about the progress of the talks with Iran.  This laid the groundwork for Secretary of State John Kerry to accuse  Netanyahu of having no knowledge of what is happening in the talks with Iran, and therfore having no right to make comments about the terms of the agreement.

The reactions all reek of a combination of anti-Netanyahu behaviour, and US party politics.  The Obama-led Democrats seem hell-bent on reaching an agreement with Iran, while the Republicans are doing all that they can to scupper the deal from proceeding.  Throwing Netanyahu into the centre of this battle is an ideal plan, particularly for Obama's Democrats.

For Netanyahu, even if the visit to Washington was not originally designed as an attempt to strengthen his position just before the election, it still presents an ideal opportunity to do so.  Netanyahu's election platform is based almost entirely upon foreign relations and security issues.  As opposed to candidates like Yair Lapid and others who focus more on  the economy and internal matters, Netanyahu's plan of attack plays to his personal strength of international diplomacy.  There is nobody in Israeli politics who can represent Israel on the international stage as Netanyahu can, and those voters who have forgotten or overlooked this are about to be reminded in this week's speech to Congress.  Israeli TV has decided that they will broadcast Netanyahu's speech to Congress live, except for a short delay to allow it to remove any election-specific comments that they be included in the speech.

The local and international press has come out in strong criticism of Netanyahu for cynically using an opportunity to promote himself before the election.  There seems equally to be a case against Obama for using the opportunity to try to put Netanyahu down to ensure that he is not re-elected, and for using this to promote the deal with Iran. 

The matter that has been lost in the crossfire, is the agreement with Iran.  It is of grave concern that Iran may be granted the right by the international community to have the capability of producing a nuclear bomb, or coming very close to it.  The highly aggressive language that Iran uses in public against Israel, and the acknowledged military threat that Iran presents to Israel, make this possibility a frightening prospect.  Coupled with the increasing anti-Semitism around thw world, much of it tied to vehement anti-Israel attacks, there seems to be a strong case in favour of Netanyahu using every opportunity to present Israel's case where he can.  While politicians play little political games in Washington and do all that they can to discredit individuals, the door is left open for Iran to freely pursue its contruction of a threat that could put future generations of Jews and Israelis in grave danger.  This danger is not unique to Jews and Israelis, but ultimately extends to all of the Middle East and the western world.  President Obama seems somehow to have lost sight of this, but perhaps it concerns him less than his own personal battles and legacy.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has his weak points, and has been known to behave to promote his own interests on numerous occasions.  There can be no doubt that he is fighting for his political survival, as the opinion polls show he is struggling to gain any advantage over his political rivals ahead of the upcoming election.  There are, however, some international issues that are above party politics and that don't wait for elections.  The Iran problem is surely one of these.

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