"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."
Those are the words of an Israeli politician named Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking in 1996 about then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres' decision to address a joint meeting of Congress weeks before that spring's Israeli elections.
Nearly 20 years later, Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, is set to engage in a "cynical" election eve charade of his own. On March 3, two weeks before Israelis go to the polls to cast judgment on Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party, Netanyahu will visit the U.S. on a brazen mission to boost his political prospects at home. This time, though, the stakes are much higher and the backlash increasingly serious.
Poisoning the well: House Speaker John Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu to lobby Congress would not be headline-grabbing news on its own. Netanyahu has spoken on Capitol Hill twice before. Israeli leaders have stood before the House and Senate on countless occasions.
But the speech in question comes at a very tense period in U.S-Israeli relations. The White House is attempting to negotiate a deal to regulate the Iranian nuclear program; Netanyahu's government is publicly and loudly opposing anything short of full disarmament.
At odds over Iran and Netanyahu's refusal to seriously engage with Palestinian leaders, the relationship between President Barack Obama and the Israeli government is publicly fraught. Still, the U.S. delivers more than $3 billion in military aid to Israel every year. Obama, despite his frosty relationship with Netanyahu, has been a stalwart supporter of the Jewish state both financially and in its assorted diplomatic spats.
So when Boehner and Netanyahu scheduled this coming visit without informing White House officials, going behind Obama's back in an effort to undermine the Iranian deal, the administration and its Washington loyalists were pissed.
In recent days, Democrats — many of them dedicated supporters of the state of Israel — have begun publicly discussing the possibility of boycotting Netanyahu's address. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has been going door to door in the Senate, trying to un-ruffle feathers, but his own role in orchestrating the end-around makes him a problematic, and some would say discredited, messenger.
Collision course: Netanyahu is apparently unconcerned with the uproar. Aides tell Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, that Netanyahu has no plans to cancel or delay his trip until after the elections, nor temper his lobbying against the potential Iranian deal during his visit. There is, aides continue to insist, nothing unusual about Netanyahu's plans. (Obama has no plans to meet with Netanyahu during the visit.)
Back in Israel, where Netanyahu enjoys a commanding lead in the polls despite the controversy, prominent political voices are asking he cancel or delay the speech. Among them is the American-born former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren.
The speech has "created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran," Oren told Haaretz. "It's advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House."
Oren might be correct, but as Netanyahu's aides are quick to note, he too is a politician running for parliament and on an opposing party's ticket. Still, their boss would be wise to take Oren's advice and stand down. Because being "cynical," as Netanyahu showed us two decades ago, doesn't mean you're wrong.