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Netanyahu gambles by challenging Obama in Congress

Analysis: GOP leadership enlisted Israel’s leader to challenge US Iran policy, White House offers cold shoulder

“I know what America is,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli settlers in 2002 in a hot-mic moment captured on video by Israel’s Channel 10. “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

That’s a proposition House Speaker John Boehner plans to test on March 3, when he presents the Israeli leader to a joint session of the House and Senate in the expectation that Netanyahu will give full-throated support to a congressional effort to overrule the Obama administration’s Iran policy.

Boehner may be counting on Netanyahu’s popularity across the partisan divide to help Republicans attract enough support for new sanctions on Iran to override the veto promised by President Barack Obama. And there are certainly a number of Democrats pushing for new sanctions despite the administration’s warning that such a move would torpedo prospects for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.

The decision to bring in a foreign leader to weigh in against the president on what Obama has defined as an issue of war and peace was taken by a Republican leadership and an Israeli head of state. The Republicans were looking to use a new congressional majority to challenge the lame-duck president, and the Israeli leader wanted to continue his own, relentless battle against nuclear compromise with Tehran. Neither party, according to Haaretz, bothered to tell the White House as they forged the plan.

 “The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Wednesday. “This particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

(Update: The White House announced Thursday that President Obama would not meet with Netanyahu during the Israeli leader's visit in March, citing a desire to avoid influencing the Israeli election two weeks later. Nor will Secretary of State John Kerry meet with Netanyahu during the visit, according to the State Department.)

It would hardly be the first time Netanyahu has tried to change U.S. policy by going around the White House and appealing directly to Congress to take a harder line on Iran. He did the same to President Bill Clinton when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House in 1996, and to Obama in May 2011.

Netanyahu has consistently played the spoiler in nuclear negotiations with Iran,  even though his hard line position on diplomacy with Iran has drawn frequent rebukes from Israel’s security chiefs over the years. Indeed, Bloomberg reported late Wednesday that Israel’s Mossad intelligence service had broken ranks with Netanyahu’s effort to press for further sanctions, and was warning U.S. officials and lawmakers that such a move would destroy efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran standoff. (Update: The Mossad on Thursday, via a statement released by Netanyahu's office, denied it had opposed new sanctions on Iran.)

Netanyahu opposes compromise on the nuclear issue, insisting that Western powers demand Iran dismantle all of its uranium-enrichment capacity — a non-starter demand for Iran, because the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of which it is a signatory guarantees member states the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. (Israel is one of only four U.N. member states that have not signed the NPT — the others are India, Pakistan and South Sudan — and is widely known to possess the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons arsenal.)

The search for a nuclear compromise that recognizes Iran’s NPT rights but creates additional safeguards against Tehran using its nuclear infrastructure to build weaponsis the basis of the current negotiations. But while that may be the shared premise of the Iranians and their international interlocutors, it’s not shared by Netanyahu or the majority on Capitol Hill — not only Republicans, but a substantial number of Democrats, also. Others have strongly backed the president’s position, including the sometimes more hawkish former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Boehner’s invitation is a blunt rejection of Obama’s appeal for more time to negotiate a deal with Iran. “There is a serious threat that exists in the world, and the president last night kind of papered over it,” Boehner said Wednesday. He said he had invited Netanyahu to discuss “how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists, and the threat posed by Iran.”

According to Politico, Boehner told a Republican meeting that Obama “expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran.” Boehner’s response: “Hell, no!”

Some Israeli commentators recognized the danger of being drawn into a domestic political dispute in Washington in which Obama had set the terms as a choice between war and peace. He vowed to veto any new sanctions on Iran while negotiations were ongoing, warning that these could torpedo talks and put the United States on a path to yet another war in the Middle East.

“The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom,” Obama said Tuesday.

That warning raises alarms over Netanyahu’s intervention, just weeks before he faces his own electorate in an election that has proved more challenging than expected.

“Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is being brought into a showdown over Iran between the U.S. President and a GOP-dominated Congress, and the U.S. Congress is being brought into Netanyahu's re-election campaign in Israel,” said former State Department official Reza Marashi, now with the National Iranian-American Council, in an email to Al Jazeera. “The Iran issue is now defined as a war or peace issue in the U.S., and it is therefore troubling to see Israel's Prime Minister working with Republicans in Congress to take ownership of an American domestic debate.”

Some Israeli commentators shared that concern, although Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat and top adviser to two prime ministers, suggested that  “this has nothing to do with Israeli elections” but “it will if the White House retaliates.” However, Pinkas, told Al Jazeera in an email, “The GOP [is] enlisting him against Obama. This is more dangerous and explosive than ‘meddling in politics’. This could, potentially, affect U.S. policy on Iran.” 

Haaretz analyst Chemi Shalev was concerned by Netanyahu’s political gamble: “By accepting Boehner’s invitation, Netanyahu is allowing himself to be used as a Republican instrument in the GOP’s ongoing clash with Obama, a position that he already holds by virtue of his 2012 intervention on behalf of Mitt Romney,” Shalev wrote. “He is openly aligning himself with legislation that Obama claims will derail diplomacy with Tehran. And if Obama’s predictions are borne out by events, he is exposing himself to the claim that he was a main protagonist in driving the United States to the brink of war or to war itself with a major Middle Eastern power, to the chagrin of American public opinion, which opposes such a move.”

Then again, if the custodians of Israel’s security are — as the Bloomberg report suggests — once again stepping forward to rein in their Prime Minister’s alarmism over Iran, that could function as effective counter-messaging to Boehner and Netanyahu March 3 intervention. 

(Update: The White House's denying Netanyahu a meeting with President Obama, and the response from key congressional Democrats such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who slammed Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu as "inappropriate", appear to confirm the fears of Israeli observers that the prime minister's appearance on Capitol Hill has put U.S.-Israel relations at the center of a domestic political storm.) 

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