On an Israel-Bonding event in Florida last weekend, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer pointed to Iran as the reason Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accepted John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress just before the Israeli elections in March. The visit was “intended for one purpose: To speak up while there is still time to speak up. To speak up when there is still time to make a difference.” It was, the envoy said, his boss’s “most sacred duty to do whatever he can to prevent Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons that can be aimed at Israel.”
Well, no one’s ever accused Netanyahu of failing to speak up. In Israel, he’s notorious for doing so loudly while carrying a small stick. In this case, however, that occasionally useful practice has backfired. As Sen. Harry Reid told the New York Times yesterday, the speech, arranged behind the Obama Administration’s back, had “become such a problem that some Democratic senators had backed off their support of the quick imposition of new sanctions on Iran.” That’s some miscalculation, especially for a prime minister whose many years living in America has gained him a reputation as a great expert on the country and its politics.
Actually it’s Dermer, a sometime Netanyahu speechwriter known as “Bibi’s brain,” who’s being blamed for the mental meltdown. A native of Miami Beach, he began his career as a Republican political operative before emigrating to Israel, and has done little to prove wrong the critics who thought him too partisan to serve as ambassador to the U.S. when he was appointed a year and a half ago. Last week, indeed, he was reprimanded by the Israeli Civil Service Commission for violating its rules by campaigning for Netanyahu in interviews with the American press.
Of course, it’s the Israeli elections, not the need to tell Congress about Iran, that explains the speech. But at this point, any electoral advantage Netanyahu might have hoped to gain from giving it seems more than negated by concern in Israel that he has traded his country’s virtually unanimous congressional support for a mess of rancid political pottage.
This unintended consequence is actually a good thing. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and it’s up to Israel’s friends in Congress to let an Israeli leader know when he (or she) is wrong. This is the first time they’ve done so in a long time. Let us hope it signals the new beginning of a beautiful friendship.