Wednesday, March 11th, 2015...3:49 pm

Editorial: Israel as a political football

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Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 address to a joint session of Congress (minus about 60 members, including Sen. Al Franken, who decided not to attend) and this week’s letter from 47 Republican senators to the “Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” it’s hard to see how Israel could become a more partisan issue in the U.S. political context.

AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby that held its annual conference last week (and also hosted the Israeli premier), also has decided to employ the Republican-led Congress as a bludgeon against the Obama administration’s effort to negotiate a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

You hear talk about bipartisan support for Israel being a cornerstone of American Jewish politics; but the Republicans for many election cycles have used Israel as a wedge issue in their attempts to pry Jewish votes away from the Democratic column.

The “partisan spectacle,” as Franken termed it, of House Speaker John Boehner inviting Netanyahu to address the Congress, without any consultation with the Obama administration, angered a great many Israelis, along with American Jews of all political stripes.

In a column posted this week on the Web site of Haaretz, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Reform movement, discussed the Netanyahu speech to Congress with “a longtime friend — a committed Jew, active in Jewish communal life, and a strong supporter of Israel. He calls himself an independent but votes mostly Republican. On U.S. President Barack Obama, he is wary and reserved; he voted for him once but for his opponent the other time. And my friend is very, very worried about the threat that Iran poses to Israel’s security.

“When I asked for his thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, I was taken aback by his reaction,” Yoffie continues. “He was angry; furious, in fact. He saw the speech as a wildly inappropriate orgy of Obama-bashing. As an American, he was offended — and worried. Had it ever happened before, he asked, that a foreign leader spoke to our Congress and launched a direct attack on the American administration? I told him that, to the best of my knowledge, it had not.”

Yoffie noted that his Democratic friends were “much tougher” on Netanyahu.

Jewish organizations want to move on and focus on the Iran issue, apart from the controversy over Netanyahu’s address; however, Yoffie found that his Jewish friends “are unsettled, uneasy and personally distressed. They are worried that the speech will generate repercussions that have yet to be felt and that could be severe. They are especially concerned that the partisan atmosphere that the speech has sparked and legitimized will drive away Democrats and progressives who have always been a mainstay of the pro-Israel coalition.”

Of course, as many have noted, Israelis will vote March 17 in Knesset elections, and the sight of Netanyahu bashing the unpopular U.S. president — from the bima in the U.S. Capitol — plays well politically in the Jewish state. Despite the economic difficulties pressing on Israelis, Netanyahu has a genuine talent for playing on popular fears about security in the hostile neighborhood of the Middle East.

As for the substance of the Israeli premier’s oration, Tom Friedman, writing in the New York Times last week, argued that “Netanyahu never made a convincing argument as to why walking away from Obama’s draft deal with Iran would result in either a better deal, more sanctions or an Iranian capitulation — and not a situation where Iran would continue to build toward a bomb and our only two choices would be to live with it or bomb it, with all the mess that could entail. In that sense, Bibi’s speech was perfect for Congress: I’ve got a better plan, and it won’t cost a thing or require any sacrifice by the American people. The guy could be a congressman.”

We don’t know yet what will come of negotiations between the P5+1 (the U.S., United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany) and Iran. Press reports say that the P5+1 goal is to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment program so that there would be a “break-out period” of one year, i.e., the West would have one year to intervene before Iran could build a nuclear weapon in violation of any agreement.

As mentioned at the top, 47 Republican senators decided this week that they would run an end-around on the Obama administration, and informed the Iranian Supreme Leader that any agreement signed by the president would expire in January 2017, and would be regarded “as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who entered the Senate this year, is the lead on the letter, which defines the word “chutzpa” — some observers suggest that it “borders on treason.”

At a White House photo op Monday, President Obama said, “I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition.”

We’ll soon see how the Netanyahu visit plays out in Israeli politics.

JTA reported this week on the Saturday night anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, which drew around 40,000 people: “The keynote speaker was former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, a respected general and harsh critic of Netanyahu’s handling of the Iranian nuclear threat and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“‘Six years Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu has served as prime minister,’ Dagan said in his speech. ‘Six years in which Israel has never been stuck as it is now. Six years he hasn’t led any real move to change the face of the region or to create a better future.’

“Despite the campaign against him, Netanyahu stands a good chance of being reelected,” according to JTA. “Likud and Zionist Union have been neck and neck atop the polls for months, and Israel’s right-wing bloc is considerably larger than its left-wing counterpart. A poll by Israel’s Channel 2 earlier this month found that 47 percent of voters say Netanyahu is best suited to be prime minister, with only 28 percent choosing Zionist Union’s co-chairman Isaac Herzog. A Haaretz poll from late February found that voters trust Netanyahu more than Herzog by a wide margin on diplomacy and defense, and that 51 percent of respondents predicted that the prime minister would be reelected.”

— Mordecai Specktor /

(American Jewish World, 3.13.15)

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