If you subscribe to the conformist opinion within the industry of political punditry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed a potentially career-destroying political blunder when he accepted an invitation from Republicans to address a joint session of Congress.
The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress just weeks before an Israeli election “reckless” and “dangerous” for the future of American-Israeli relations. USA Today’s editorial board described Netanyahu’s maneuver as a “singularly destructive unforced error.” The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson insisted that “conspiring behind President Obama’s back” was a “colossal mistake.”
Even some members of the political class have insisted that congressional Republicans and Netanyahu were inviting a diplomatic row between the two allied nations. “For us to extend an invitation two weeks before the Israeli election gives the Israelis the impression we’re meddling in their election,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). He did not mention that a taxpayer-funded team of American campaign experts have been working to unseat Netanyahu for weeks. The White House abandoned the facade of neutrality in the coming Israeli election long ago.
If all of these assertions that Netanyahu had shot himself in the foot sounds like wishful thinking, it should. The proof that Netanyahu’s decision to speak before Congress might still be a success for him is evident in the bind in which his American adversaries in the Democratic Party find themselves.
In a display of petulance, a disturbingly frequent occurrence from our president, Barack Obama has declined to meet with his Israeli counterpart while he is in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry, too, will shun Netanyahu, and Vice President Joe Biden will not commit to attending his speech. This has forced Democrats to choose between their loyalty to the head of their party in the White House and their support for the state of Israel.
“Democrats have had to balance publicly supporting Israel with backing Obama,” Politico reported. “Dozens of House Democrats are privately threatening to skip the March 3 address, according to lawmakers and aides, in what’s become the lowest point of a relationship between the Israeli prime minister and President Barack Obama that’s never been good.”
Though some may abandon the threat, as of Tuesday, many Democrats on the Hill — including several Jewish members — said they’re likely to leave the prime minister looking at some empty seats.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said he’s considered not going and has discussed it with his colleagues.
“I just don’t know if it’s the proper response or not,” he said. “But I just think it’s a mistake and it might be a proper protest. But I haven’t made that definite decision.”
Of course, Politico professes its fealty for the conventional wisdom and observes that Obama’s bounce in the polls appears to provide him with a “political edge” over both Republicans and Netanyahu. But Obama’s polling bounce was always going to be a fleeting one, and it is already beginning to ebb.
In addition, American attitudes toward Netanyahu and Israel are generally favorable. According to polling conducted in November of last year by GfK, a plurality of Americans expressed a favorable view of Netanyahu. 33 percent had a positive view of Netanyahu while 15 percent viewed him unfavorably. 37 percent had no opinion, suggesting either a lack of familiarity or disinterest in the subject matter.
“His favorable numbers are comparable to those of [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [British Prime Minister David] Cameron (30 percent each), but his negatives are higher: 15 percent compared with 6 percent for Cameron and 7 percent for Merkel,” wrote Shibley Telhami in The Washington Post.
In July of last year, even at the height of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, the Pew Research Center found support for the state of Israel reached near-record levels among Americans. “Even as some critics of Israel claim that Israel’s support in the US is waning, the poll shows that the number of people expressing sympathy with Israel is at the second-highest level it has been since this particular question was first asked back in 1978,” The Jerusalem Post reported.
Support for both Israel and Netanyahu is not uniformly shared by all Americans, of course. Fewer Democrats support the Israeli prime minister, and young people are slightly less supportive of the Jewish state than are their older counterparts. For this reason, many Democrats who decide to boycott Netanyahu’s speech will encounter few consequences for this decision. That is also a function of the fact that the Democratic Party has been largely relegated to only those districts and states that are dominated by liberal partisans.
For Democrats who hope to engineer a political rebound from the Obama era, a period that has seen Democratic political power wane to its lowest point in nearly a century, they will have to reframe the party as a majoritarian vehicle for positive reform representative of broader American opinion rather than just a vocal minority of progressives. Obama’s petulance, the Republican’s guile, and Netanyahu’s boldness have painted the Democratic Party’s representatives into a corner in which they are forced to choose between the leader of their party and the popular leader of Israel. All the while, Netanyahu and his party are surging in polls of Israeli voters.
If this is what a political blunder looks like, I’d love to see what the Beltway class considers deftness.