SAN DIEGO – When it comes to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the United States and Israel, President Barack Obama is in a bad position to talk about good manners.
Yet, here’s something I don’t say often: When it comes to a certain breach of protocol, I agree with White House officials.
It was impolite and inappropriate for House Speaker John Boehner to circumvent Obama and invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Republican-controlled Congress in early March. And it was equally impolite and inappropriate for Netanyahu to accept.
Not that Boehner exceeded his authority under the Constitution. He didn’t. Despite the insistence by some administration supporters that Congress doesn’t shape foreign policy, that isn’t true. Through its power to approve treaties, declare war and approve requests for foreign aid, the legislative branch is a partner in defining how the United States interacts with foreign countries.
But just because this is legally permissible doesn’t mean you should go ahead and do it. For one thing, the timing isn’t good. The invitation came as some Republicans were pushing for additional sanctions against Iran, which happens to be a course of action opposed by the White House. The optics aren’t any better. The invitation came too soon on the heels of the November election, when Obama and the Democratic Party sustained heavy losses. This looks like Boehner is taking a victory lap, and inviting Netanyahu to run alongside him. The gesture is highly disrespectful to the president and the administration.
That certainly seems to be how the White House took it, which is why the administration appears to be furious. Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu during the visit.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official saying that Netanyahu “spat in our face publicly.” The official also said that the Israeli leader “ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”
In other words: In foreign affairs, what goes around, comes around. That’s true enough, and the White House should keep that warning in mind. It’s clear that Obama and the rest of his administration are themselves paying a price for repeatedly insulting and mistreating Netanyahu.
Last October, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a provocative article quoting two unnamed Obama administration officials describing Netanyahu as a “chicken––” because “he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states.” The other official added that Netanyahu was also a “coward” about the possibility of Israel launching a pre-emptive airstrike to hamper Iran’s nuclear program.
In November 2011, during the G-20 summit in Cannes, Obama found himself in what he thought was a private conversation with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy that was accidentally broadcast to journalists. “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy told Obama. Instead of coming to the Israeli leader’s defense or chastising Sarkozy, Obama responded: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
And in March 2010, at a time when the relationship between the United States and Israel was strained because of Israel’s refusal to halt the construction of new settlements in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu was snubbed during a visit to the White House. According to Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Obama greeted the Israeli leader by presenting him with a list of 13 demands, including a reiteration of the call to stop the settlements. When Netanyahu objected, Obama got up from his seat and declared: “I’m going to the residential wing to have dinner with Michelle and the girls.” For over an hour, Netanyahu and his aides remained in the Roosevelt Room waiting for Obama to return.
Most decent people wouldn’t treat an everyday house guest in such a boorish manner, much less a head of state and the representative of a nation that has long been an important friend and dependable ally. And making matters worse, this happened not in the Obamas’ private home but in the White House, which doesn’t belong to just one family but to the American people.
The relationship between the United States and Israel is in tatters, and it’s no mystery how it got this way. It’s clear that Obama has long held Netanyahu in contempt. And clearly, the feeling is now mutual.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is email@example.com.