Friday, January 30, 2015

Why Netanyahu's Plans To Address Congress Are Backfiring

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has faced a barrage of criticism over plans to address Congress on Iran's nuclear program in March. The speech, in which Bibi is expected to oppose Obama administration policy on Iran sanctions, has drawn controversy because it was scheduled without informing the White House.

The extent of this criticism is surprising. Both Netanyahu and media outlets that support him have a solid track record of portraying the Obama administration as blameworthy for slumps in US-Israel relations. It would not have been unreasonable for Netanyahu to conclude that his speech would generate the same sentiments as previous visits. However, news of Bibi's speech generated opposition not only from liberals (including Democratic party leadership), but also the Wall Street Journal, The American Conservative, and Fox News.

This is not the first time Netanyahu has spoken in conjunction with an AIPAC conference to oppose the Obama administration's policy. In 2011, President Obama reiterated that a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be "based on the 1967 lines." Netanyahu called these lines "indefensible" in speeches to AIPAC and Congress. These comments generated widespread pro-Israel support and diminished the Obama administration's leverage over the Prime Minister. 

So why did Netanyahu's strategy backfire this time where it succeeded in 2011?

One reason is that the Obama administration has realized the extent to which its Israel policy is a weak spot. President Obama issued no comment on the upcoming speech, since in the past his administration has been burned by its own statements. This silence has led to more media attention on the Netanyahu administration's copious comments on the issue.

Secondly, Israeli domestic politics are not on the Prime Minister's side. In the campaign season, the Israeli public interprets practically every political move as election-driven. Netanyahu's speech has also bred concern that he is harming the US-Israel relationship, an opinion which parties opposing him have pointed out for political gain. Even if some Israelis disagree with one particular aspect of US foreign policy, they still value US support overall. Given comments he has made about the speech, Bibi's indication that Obama administration support is expendable has generated discomfort on both ends of the US-Israel relationship.

Most importantly, the Iran sanctions bill is a matter of US foreign policy, whereas the 1967 lines issue was a matter of Israeli foreign policy. Furthermore, it was a policy with which conservatives agreed. In 2011, it was easy to frame President Obama as interfering in Israeli security politics. Given that many pro-Israel Americans prefer the West Bank stay under Israeli control if possible, this target audience was receptive to the message. This time around, the Israeli Prime Minister is interfering on matter of US foreign policy. While the US-Iran deal impacts Israeli security, it has important implications for many other core US interests. Off the record comments by military officials indicate considerable concern at the Defense Department about an Israeli strike on Iran. Given these concerns, annoyance at Netanyahu's attempts to influence the debate are understandable.

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