If you thought President Obama received a lot of standing ovations during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, just wait until next month if Benjamin Netanyahu decides to come to Washington. The Israeli prime minister was just invited by Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress, specifically about Iran, which is arguably the greatest source of tension between the prime minister and the president.
Netanyahu previously addressed Congress in 2011, during which he received no fewer than 29 (mostly bipartisan) standing ovations, which was four more than Obama had received at the State of the Union that year. During a rare moment of lucidity, Thomas Friedman said that the “ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
The power of that lobby, led by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, has been well-documented. In a review of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, Scott McConnell discussed the ovations Netanyahu received:
“Each member of Congress had a single gallery pass to give out, and most gave theirs to their largest AIPAC donor. With the hall packed with supporters, Netanyahu received one thundering ovation after another. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who as head of the Democratic National Committee plays a key role in party fundraising, used arm motions to signal to her colleagues when to stand and applaud, and they rose and clapped at Netanyahu’s most controversial statements.”
Boehner’s invitation is designed to make Obama look soft on Iran by bringing in the hawkish Netanyahu to explain — on Obama’s own turf — why more sanctions are needed, even after Obama has said he would veto any attempt by Congress to impose additional ones. It was a threat he reiterated in Tuesday’s State of the Union. However, in the 114th Congress, an override of a veto is a more distinct possibility because Republicans have shored up their majority in the House and have taken over the Senate, which means fewer Democrats would be required to oppose the president to help reach the two-thirds override threshold in both houses.
The Speaker’s invitation is also designed to give Netanyahu an international stage ahead of the Knesset elections in March, which the prime minister called early after firing two of his cabinet members. Netanyahu’s decision amounted to little more than a tantrum over opposition within his own ruling coalition, and he hopes the upcoming vote will give him a government he can more easily control.
Earlier this month the State Department announced, “The United States is not and will not be engaged in any way in trying to affect the Israeli elections, end of story.” Apparently, Boehner feels differently, and wants Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party to consolidate its power, not because it’s Netanyahu, but because it’s the prime minister of Israel, who will be supported by Congress no matter what.
Since it’d be a great opportunity for some good publicity ahead of a big election, don’t be surprised if Netanyahu takes Boehner up on his offer. After all, this is the same guy who defied French President Francois Hollande’s request that he not attend the Charlie Hebdo unity rally in Paris. The prime minister initially agreed, but then found out that two of his cabinet members planned on attending. Not to be upstaged, Netanyahu went to Paris.
And if and when Mr. Netanyahu comes to Washington, you can bet your bottom shekel that he’ll do his damnedest to upstage Obama’s policy on Iran.