Not long ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably thought he was pretty clever. He'd reached a secret deal with Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner to address Congress in March, intended to push moderate representatives and senators into passing more sanctions on Iran. The speech would thoroughly spoil President Obama's carefully prepared negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and in the process embolden Netanyahu's hawkish coalition just two weeks before a major Israeli election.
But mainly, Netanyahu has succeeded only in violating diplomatic norms and infuriating everyone. Haaretzdescribed the White House as in a state of "astonishment mingled with insult and anger" following the announcement. The Obama administration is so angry that it is now unlikely that the two leaders will personally meet at any time before the end of Obama's term. John Kerry, who has repeatedly provided cover for Israel and Netanyahu's government on the world stage, has apparently decided this was the last straw. Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, is basically an unofficial persona non grata.
The prime minister also alienated Democrats, who have caught the scent of something rotten. Netanyahu appears to have been under the impression that enough Democrats are more loyal to Israel than they are their own president, ready to backstab Obama and push through sanctions despite his veto threat. This was a disastrous miscalculation: Three House Democrats are circling a petition to postpone the speech, saying it "appears to be an attempt to promote new sanctions legislation against Iran that could undermine critical negotiations."
In the Senate, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has announced he will not vote for his own hawkish bill imposing automatic sanctions on Iran until after March 24 -- after the Israeli elections and long enough to ensure negotiators have time to work. He was joined by nine other Democrats, making any theoretical veto override Netanyahu's visit was supposed to inspire laughable. If Netanyahu's objective was to get Congress to toughen up on Iran, than he's accomplished precisely the opposite.
Why would Netanyahu do something so foolish? Much of the blame should go to Boehner, who probably oversold the prime minister on the chances of this plot paying dividends. But by all indications the hawkish Netanyahu has an obsession with Iran and its nuclear program that is beginning to look more than a bit unhealthy. He believes that negotiation is useless, Iran's nuclear program must be dismantled by outside force and seems immune to any outside logic on both points. Netanyahu has gone well out of his way to make the dubious argument that Iran is a much bigger immediate threat than Islamic State.
It probably doesn't hurt that he's having an unsettlingly close election season (including an unintentionally embarrassing visit to Paris), which the U.S. visit could have helped considerably. By sabotaging critical negotiations with GOP support, Netanyahu's tough line on Iran would gain a significant amount of credibility. Given such frosty relations with Obama's White House, some right-wing Israelis seem happy to go out of their way to show what a fool the POTUS really is and are more than willing to burn bridges in the process. As the International Herald-Tribune's Roger Cohen wrote back in 2012, Netanyahu has the kind of long-standing grudge with Obama that would be politically advantageous to win right now:
The mistake Netanyahu has made is to believe he can go over the head of President Obama. He has tried through Congress, where his speech last year earned 29 standing ovations. He has greeted Romney in Israel as if he were on a state visit. He has said those “who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” He has given critical interviews on U.S. TV networks in the midst of a presidential campaign. And he hath protested far too much that he has no intention — none — of swaying the outcome.
Some adjectives that come to mind are: brazen, reckless and irrational.
Republicans would have got something equally nice out of the bargain too: a massive screw you to President Obama, who has been carefully pursuing an Iranian deal for several years. That's his prerogative given that the Constitution clearly outlines executive primacy on matters of foreign policy. But leaving no potential finger in Obama's eye unjabbed, Boehner has chosen to make an extremely inappropriate deal with Netanyahu to embarrass the president and frustrate his ambitions yet again. (Notorious far-right casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson may have played a role as well.)
It's all backfiring terribly, which is a good thing. Pursuing mindless sanctions and making negotiations as unappealing as possible for Iran is a sure-fire way to guarantee tensions simmer over into armed conflict. Forget the fact that Iran's nuclear program has beenslowed down by the negotiations, that Israel and the U.S. are incapable of actually stopping the program by force without resorting to total war, or that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is trying his best to outmaneuver Iranian hardliners in pursuit of a deal that will lift the crippling sanctions. Nevermind that President Obama has zero intention of letting the Iranian theocracy get its grubby hands on a civilization-ending weapon.
The truth is that Netanyahu would have the U.S. start a full-blown armed conflict with majority-Shia Iran while U.S. forces are still busy bombing the hell out of the Sunni Islamic State. That sounds like a great way to start some totally avoidable chaos.
Bibi's visit will only hurt him, and now he will have to justify this mess to his constituents. It made absolutely no sense for Israel's prime minister to have so brazenly insulted an American president or so insolently sided with his domestic opposition. There's still time to cancel the visit, but the damage has already been done.
This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Ron Dermer's current status in Washington.