For the past week or so, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been up and down a strategic roller-coaster over their plan to pitch Congress on imposing additional sanctions on Iran. President Obama has long vowed to veto any effort at undermining P5 plus 1 talks with a unilateral sanctions bill, but Boehner invited Netanyahu to make an address to a joint session of Congress so he can lobby them to do just that, and in a breach in protocol that amounts to a slap in the face, Netanyahu didn’t inform the White House of the visit, Boehner’s office did.
The move backfired badly on Netanyahu and Boehner, as Democrats who had been supportive of passing a sanctions bill reacted by delaying any such vote until after the March 24 deadline for the Iran nuclear talks. In Israel, Netanyahu’s stunt has engendered a backlash over the questionable judgment he’s shown in antagonizing the leader of Israel’s closest ally. Through it all, the White House has been content to pop corn and duck the odd bit of debris. Asked early on if President Obama would meet with the PM when he visits in March, the White House has maintained that the president won’t see Netanyahu, but not because they’re snubbing him.
This week, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria asked the president about it, point-blank, and Obama insisted there was no snub:
“I’ll let Mr. Boehner answer that and Mr. Netanyahu. I speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu all the time. We’re declining to meet with him; I’m declining to meet with him simply because our general policy is we don’t meet with any world leader two weeks before their election.
“I think that’s inappropriate, and that’s true with some of our closest allies. David Cameron, who’s got an election coming up, recently came to visit because he insisted that if he wants to come and it was a very important meeting, he needs to be far away enough from the election that it doesn’t look like in some ways we’re meddling or putting our thumbs on the scale.”
Now, the president is right, there is an election in Israel just weeks after Netanyahu’s proposed visit, and ordinarily, the president’s premise makes sense, because in order to meet with a foreign leader, that leader is ordinarily invited by the president, which does, indeed, imply or give the appearance of an endorsement. In this case, though, Netanyahu invited himself, and so the fact that he is going to be just a few blocks away, yet Obama won’t so much as glance or wave at him, could as easily imply or give the appearance of a slam or a snub (albeit a well-earned snub, in this case).
The White House doesn’t see it that way, or at least they say they don’t see it that way. This administration has mastered the art of the icy arranged marriage with Netanyahu, and while they continued to insist that this was all just an effort to keep the Israeli elections fair, there is not a single White House official who can withstand so much as a skeptical glance without cracking a smile. If Zakaria had pressed President Obama even a little bit, I bet he would have cracked, too, and suggested that Netanyahu go on with that alley-cat-coat-wearing, hush-puppy-shoe-wearing crumbcake who invited him.
They’re not really even trying to hide the fact that this is a snub, because why should they? Netanyahu and Boehner have acted indefensibly, and deserve whatever they get, but the beautiful thing is that anyonr who wants to whine about it has to get through Benjamin Netanyahu, first. The real beauty of this snub is that it was the snubbee who gave them cover for it:
“I can’t find an example of any previous Israeli government whose prime minister, on the eve of elections, made a cynical attempt to use relations between Israel and the United States as a party advertisement,” Mr. Netanyahu said, according to a report by The Associated Press at the time.
Now, it looks like Netanyahu’s slap at Obama, and the president’s subsequent snub, figure to hurt the prime minister much more than any presidential visit could have helped. It is yet another in a string of victories for Obama, who might just wind up being given a third term before it’s all said and done.