It was a sad display of petulance. President Barack Obama declined to meet with his Israeli counterpart—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—during his trip to Washington earlier this week. Instead of even watching the speech on television, he scheduled a video conference with other world leaders to discuss Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry sent his regrets, saying he would be out of the country negotiating with Iranians. And Vice President Joe Biden, who would normally be seated next to the Speaker of the House during such a speech, said months in advance that he will be travelling abroad, though he didn’t quite know the destination.
In short, the White House saw Netanyahu—an ally—coming and they fled for the hills. Not only that, but they then set about on a plan to undercut his visit, blunt his message, and threaten his relationship with the U.S. The AP reported:
Administration officials have discarded the idea of President Barack Obama himself giving an Iran-related address to rebut the two speeches Netanyahu is to deliver during his early March visit. But other options remain on the table.
Among them: a presidential interview with a prominent journalist known for coverage of the rift between Obama and Netanyahu, multiple Sunday show television appearances by senior national security aides and a pointed snub of America’s leading pro-Israel lobby, which is holding its annual meeting while Netanyahu is in Washington, according to the officials. . .
The White House is now doubling down on a cold-shoulder strategy, including dispatching Cabinet members out of the country and sending a lower-ranking official than normal to represent the administration at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the officials said
“We thought we’ve seen everything,” one unnamed, senior American official said. “But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s not way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”
And yet Netanyahu’s proceeded to do anything but spit in the White House’s face. If anything he was gracious.
“I want to thank you, Democrats and Republicans, for your common support for Israel, year after year, decade after decade,” the prime minister told Congress.
“We appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel,” he continued. “Some of that is widely known, like strengthening security cooperation and intelligence sharing, opposing anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. Some of what the president has done for Israel is less well-known.”
Bibi went on to tell stories of the president sending aid after a forest fire, providing assistance when Israel’s embassy in Cairo was under siege, and lending support for more missile interceptors in fighting Hamas. Each anecdote was meant to build President Obama up, but in the end it only made his recent cold-shoulder tactics appear small.
That’s sad, especially in such a big moment. The ongoing nuclear talks between the United States and Iran are incredibly important, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the outcome of the talks is of much greater concern to Israel than it is to the United States. We want peace and prosperity in a region of the world that has continually been a destabilizing international force. But Israel is quite literally fighting for its very existence. Is it any surprise then that Prime Minister Netanyahu is driven to passionate pleas for help even at the expense of a break in purported protocol?
“[I]f the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran. That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them,” Netanyahu told Congress.
He went on to describe how the current deal does not require the disassembly of centrifuges being used to enrich uranium and how its provisions expire in ten years.
“A decade may seem like a long time in political life,” Netanyahu said, “but it’s the blink of an eye in the life of a nation. It’s a blink of an eye in the life of our children.”
Netanyahu’s speech may not be enough to turn the tide in the White House’s talks with Tehran. But if nothing else, he put the Obama Administration in a situation in which they must explain themselves and the deal they are making. Every concession will be discussed. Every timeline will studied. And questions will inevitably asked.
To the extent that leads to a stronger, better deal then Bibi’s speech will have not been in vain, even if the White House wasn’t present to witness it.