Israel was down to one mention in last night’s stirring and progressive State of the Union Speech, and Palestine didn’t even get a name-check. Two states living peacefully side by side? Nope; President Obama seems to be walking away from the futile peace process.
Israel came up in the context of the big political battle Obama faces, Iran sanctions. Last night he vowed to veto any new sanctions bill. Few people would have known just what was at stake as the president made that declaration, saying the American people want him to talk to Iran, not go to war:
Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material. Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies — including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict. There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.
Obama was warning the Israel lobby; bug out of these negotiations. That’s the line he drew in the sand in the New York Times last week, criticizing donor pressure on Democratic senators.
Well, Congress has responded. This morning it invited Netanyahu to speak to a joint session in the House chamber on February 11– a month before the Israeli elections (as Haaretz noted).
House Speaker John Boehner’s statement on the invite plays off of the Paris murders, and grants Netanyahu an authority he doesn’t seem to grant Obama:
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people,” Boehner said. “In this time of challenge, I am asking the Prime Minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life. Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again.”
Boehner cast Netanyahu’s address scheduled for Feb. 11 as being intended to rebuke to Obama’s negotiations with Iran on that country’s nuclear program…
[T]he president “expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran [Boehner said].”
“Two words: “Hell no!” … we’re going to do no such thing,” Boehner said.
Haaretz says the White House’s Josh Earnest “criticizes Netanyahu’s planned trip to U.S., calling it ‘departure from protocol'”.
“Such invitations are usually made leader to leader.”
AP reports that Earnest calls it a “breach of protocol.”
Every time one thinks Netanyahu has taken the relationship with the White House to the lowest point ever, he manages to take it even lower
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) January 21, 2015
And on MSNBC today, Noga Tarnopolsky in Jerusalem says that Boehner and Netanyahu were “negotiating behind President Obama’s back” to bring off the invitation.
Boehner’s actual invitation sent out this morning says Netanyahu is being invited by the “bipartisan leadership” of the Senate and House. Says Scott McConnell of Netanyahu’s visit to Congress: “The only question will be how many standing ovations will he receive? I think he had 29 last time around. Should we set up a betting pool on it?”
As Boehner aides pointed out to the Hill “there is bipartisan support for Iran sanctions legislation.” That’s true: Netanyahu met two days ago with a bipartisan group of seven senators. Dems were represented by Indiana’s Joe Donnelly (second from the left) and Virginia’s Tim Kaine (not in the picture), not to mention Angus King, the Maine Independent, at left. It was South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham’s second visit to Jerusalem inside of a month. He can’t stay away! (He fielded Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd’s question about presidential hopes from Jerusalem.)
On NPR the other day, Steve Inskeep pointed out to Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough that many Democrats support sanctions.
given that people in both parties want to act, is there anything Congress can do that the president would accept?
MCDONOUGH: I think what Congress should do is give us some time to see if these negotiations can work. I think in looking back at the last year under the agreement – the temporary agreement that we and the rest of the world struck with the Iranians – we’ve seen their program frozen in important ways and even rolled back in very important ways. So we’ve seen good progress against an elicit Iranian nuclear program as a result of these negotiations. So if Congress wants to act later in the year, we could consider that. But at the moment, they ought to give us the space to let these negotiations work…
Inskeep asked McDonough four questions on Iran–because it’s a bipartisan issue in D.C. Last night on Hardball, Chris Matthews asked three Democratic leaders, Chuck Schumer, Barbara Boxer, and David Axelrod, zero questions about Iran. Because he knows, hawkishness is inside the Democratic Party, and it would have been divisive.
Today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez said of Obama’s Iran passage in the State of the Union:
“The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran, and it feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization when they are the ones with original sin… They get to cheat in a series of ways and we get to worry about their perceptions.”
Menendez is co-sponsor of the Iran sanction legislation Obama has promised to veto.
Here is part of the statement by B’nai B’rith International on Obama’s speech. It praised him on immigration reform and human dignity and anti-Semitism. But it kept up the pressure for sanctions.
The president noted his commitment to pursuing diplomatic means to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. We must make it starkly clear to Tehran that the expanded deadline for talks must not merely serve as an opportunity for Iran to continue to build its nuclear program and deceive the world about its weapons-making progress. B’nai B’rith has consistently called for maintaining pressure on Iran and keeping all options open. We are pleased the president acknowledged that Iran’s nuclear program has implications for the security of both the United States and Israel. But we remain concerned that removing sanctions as an option leaves an open door for Iran’s delaying tactics. All options must remain on the table. Keeping up pressure on Iran reinforces a strong U.S. negotiating position.
We’re moving toward a real confrontation. Let’s hope that journalists inform the American people about what is at stake. Let’s hope that M.J. Rosenberg gets out the epithet Israel Firster and heaves it around. How many Americans want another war in the Middle East?
Update: The story is making the cables. On CNN David Rohde says that Netanyahu seems to have challenged protocol by not consulting Obama before accepting the invitation. Boehner said he did not consult the president but “I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye.” Netanyahu will be discussing jihadists and Iran, serious threats that Obama “papered over” in his State of the Union speech.
MJ Rosenberg is going after Netanyahu:
Bibi: “I wonder if I can get Schumer, Lindsey Graham. & my favorite gangster Bob Menendez, to lead Congress in singing Hatikva. YES!”
Adam Horowitz contributed all the newsy bits in this post.