Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been “reaching out”, as the New York Times delicately puts it, to Democratic leaders in the U.S. Congress who were blindsided by Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress March 3.
Netanyahu’s office confirmed Thursday, according to the Times, that the Prime Minister had called Democrats and “other friends” in Congress in recent days, and that he “reiterated that the survival of Israel is not a partisan issue.”
AIPAC usually handles “reaching out” for Israel when needed among power players in Washington. Not this time. AIPAC, according to a U.S. Jewish media source, did not know about the speech in advance of Boehner’s invitation.
The damage has to be cleaned up by Netanyahu, if he wants to save his plan to address the U.S. Congress two weeks before he faces reelection in Israel March 17.
As a rule, political calls between Israel and the Congress are not made public. This uproar, however, calls for naming names. The Times provides them:
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said Thursday that Mr. Netanyahu had called him the previous afternoon to explain why the White House had been circumvented before he was invited to speak before Congress.
The prime minister has also called Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat.
Secret talks began three weeks ago between Netanyahu, his American-born ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer (pictured above), and Boehner. Their goal: Bring Netanyahu back for his third appearance before Congress, an honor allowed previously only to Winston Churchill.
The Speaker held up the announcement of the speech until the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address.
In an action that angered the White House, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Dermer on the same day as the State of the Union, and Dermer said nothing to him about the March 3 speech.
CNN reports that Dermer blames Boehner for his failure to inform Kerry about the speech.
Boehner’s office said he made it clear to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer that “it was his (Boehner’s) prerogative to inform the White House,” and Dermer has said multiple times that is what he was led to believe.
“It was the speaker’s responsibility and normal protocol for the Speaker’s office to notify the administration of the invitation,” Dermer told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg on Friday.
CNN also reports that the White House was not told of the Netanyahu invitation on January 21, until two weeks after Boehner “first asked Dermer if Netanyahu might be interested.” The Prime Minister was indeed “open in principle to an invitation”.
This is a disturbing picture of the absence of diplomatic finesse in a maneuver that carries war or peace consequences.
Truthout’s Robert Naiman makes a strong case as to why the speech should be postponed, starting with Boehner’s failure to consult with the White House before issuing an invitation to a foreign leader.
In addition, Naiman points out, Netanyahu’s speech would afford him the opportunity to join forces with Republican leaders in attacking President Obama’s Iran policy and undermining “the US/Europe-Iran talks and put the US on a path to war with Iran”.
Democratic congressional members who have condemned a Netanyahu address to Congress as “undiplomatic and reckless”, are torn between supporting the president on a foreign policy issue and offending what the New York Times refers to as “the powerful pro-Israeli interests in the United States or Jewish voters.”
Writing in Mondoweiss, Philip Weiss notes that “with even AIPAC washing its hands of the speech, it sure looks as if Israel supporters want an exit from this fiasco.”
“Jettisoning Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer or cancelling the speech, would seem like a small price to pay in the news cycle next to a spectacle in which leading Democrats are forced to line up against Netanyahu in Washington, even as they file in and out of the AIPAC policy conference and praise Israel to the skies.”
Dermer’s stock in Israeli ruling circles had been growing steadily since he moved to Israel in his middle 20s from his hometown in Miami Beach, Florida. He gave up his U.S. citizenship to take a government position before becoming Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.
Now his stock has taken a hit, at least for the moment. Alan Elsner of J Street, the liberal Jewish NGO in Washington, savaged Dermer in Haaretz, “Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., is planting a rotten seed.”
Elsner also writes that Dermer has placed Israel’s most essential protection at risk:
“At a time of growing diplomatic isolation, Israel only has one firm ally that it can depend on – the United States. Does it really want to further narrow that base of support by depending entirely on Republicans, as Dermer seems to want to do?”
According to the Times, Michael Oren, another U.S.-born Israeli politician, who served as Dermer’s predecessor as ambassador to the U.S. has called on Netanyahu to cancel the speech. Oren is currently aligned against Netanyahu’s party in the upcoming Israeli elections.
Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota [co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus], (pictured at left), Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Maxine Waters of California, said Boehner’s invitation for Netanyahu to speak March 3 is “harmful for three reasons: it undermines the president’s foreign policy; it puts a close ally in the middle of a domestic political debate; and it elevates a candidate in a foreign election.”
Ellison, Cohen and Waters are circulating a letter among House members, addressed to Speaker Boehner, asking him to postpone the invitation until after the Israeli election and until Congress has considered the issue of Iran sanctions.
Will all of this activity lead to a postponement or cancellation?
In the spirit of this weekend’s Super Bowl betting fever, Adam Horowitz has posted odds on how this Netanyahu-Dermer-Boehner fiasco might play out. Here are a few of his betting odds:
Odds Netanyahu cancels his speech and apologizes to President Obama: 100 to 1
Odds Netanyahu “reschedules” his speech, makes sure it never happens and hopes no one ever brings it up again: 2 to 1
Odds Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer gets canned: 3 to 1
Odds Dermer moves back to Florida: 5 to 1
Odds Dermer runs the Republican Jewish Coalition within three months: 2 to 1
Over/Under on standing ovations Netanyahu will receive in 60-minute speech: 60
If like me, you learned as a child that gambling is a sin, then do not place any of these bets. Horowitz, however, has more odds listed. It will not be a sin to look at all of them. They offer a clue as to how Israel and the Congress will reestablish their relationship.
The picture of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer at top is by Reuters. It appeared in The Atlantic. The picture of Congressman Ellison is from the Center for American Progressives.