Netanyahu should invite political rival to join him before Congress, Israeli expert suggests

Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog: No match for Netanyahu
Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog

“If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on addressing the U.S. Congress before the March 17 Israeli elections, he would be wise to invite Labor Party head Isaac Herzog to join him,” said Prof. Eytan Gilboa, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Center for International Communication, presenting a possible way of defusing the current crisis.

Some people believe that House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to the Israeli prime minister to present his views on Iran – in collaboration with Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer – was a ploy to promote both the Republican Party’s and Netanyahu’s political interests.

Gilboa, an expert on Israeli-American relations who serves as senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, believes it would be best if the prime minister were to cancel the trip and the speech entirely, but he doubts that will happen. He noted that Netanyahu has stated he feels it is imperative to present his position to the American legislators before the last round of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program.

“If he invites Herzog – and Herzog agrees – it would neutralize the accusations of electioneering. After all, Herzog is as worried about Iran as Bibi,” Gilboa noted, referring to the prime minister by his popular nickname.

In the current climate, however, he indicated, it is unlikely that Herzog will help rescue Netanyahu from the morass. Herzog is a leader of the opposition to Netanyahu’s governing coalition – a political rival.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has politely declined President Barack Obama’s invitation to meet, citing “scheduling constraints,” although media sources conjectured he did not want to become involved in the highly contentious situation.

Another option the prime minister could consider, Gilboa said, would be to postpone the speech until after the Israeli elections, especially since Congress has already decided to delay the vote on harsher sanctions until the end of March. “This would demolish the argument that the speech is only a campaign maneuver.”

“If the prime minister persists in his plans, he has to take into account that he might be speaking mostly to the Republican members of Congress. He should seriously consider House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s statement that the Democrats might decide not to show up – or even more damaging, that they will attend and demonstrate their disdain by refusing to clap or rise for ovations. Speakers are judged by the amount of applause and the number of standing ovations they receive,” Gilboa pointed out.

In a conversation with WJW, Gilboa said that in addition to fomenting another crisis with President Obama and bringing about a confrontation with the Democratic Party, Israel’s prime minister has placed the American Jewish community in an uncomfortable position.

Recent statistics reveal that most American Jews support the Democratic Party. Some polls indicate that nearly 70 percent of American Jews voted for Democrats in the recent congressional elections.

“To have Israel’s prime minister play party politics in America and ignore the tradition of bipartisanship, places American Jews in an embarrassing, if not untenable, position,” Gilboa said. “The conflict impacts the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel,
as well as the official American-Israeli relationship.”

And what of Ron Dermer? Gilboa believes his future as Israeli ambassador is doubtful. “It was a mistake to appoint him in the first place,” Gilboa said. “It takes a long time for an ambassador to build strong relationships with legislators and policymakers. Dr. Michael Oren [Dermer’s predecessor] was a good ambassador and there was no need to replace him. The relationships he nurtured helped to smooth over some of the difficulties that developed during those years.”

When Dermer came to Washington, he was already considered partial to the Republicans. He had worked on American political campaigns that promoted Republican candidates and interests and is believed to have been responsible for the prime minister’s unsubtle endorsement of Mitt Romney in Romney’s failed 2012 run for president against Obama.

Last week, the New York Times reported an unnamed Obama administration official strongly criticizing Dermer, stating that “time and again, Dermer put Netanyahu’s political interests above relations between Israel and the United States.” In December, Israel’s Civil Service Commission reprimanded Dermer for promoting Netanyahu’s re-election campaign in a television interview, in violation of government regulations.

“Now that he is perceived to be behind the Boehner invitation to Netanyahu, his position has become unsustainable,” Gilboa said. “Even if Netanyahu is re-elected, Dermer will no longer be effective. He has become an even greater persona non grata than he was before and will have to be replaced.”

Sarabeth Lukin is an American/Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.

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