When you are the president of the United States, many discussions are all about you. It may make it harder to recognize one that isn’t.
That’s one explanation for the way President Obama handled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress yesterday, emphasizing the politics surrounding Netanyahu’s visit rather than the policy questions the prime minister presented.
Of course, there was inevitably a political dimension to the speech, as there is with almost anything involving the Democratic administration and the Republican-dominated Congress. To support Obama’s show of pique, more than 50 Democrats made a point of boycotting the address. Also absent was Vice President Joe Biden, who discovered he had business in South America that was more pressing than acting in his constitutional role of presiding over the Senate during a joint session of Congress. However, nearly all the Jewish Democrats, or Democrats from states with large Jewish populations, did attend, happily or otherwise.
Obama himself refused to meet with Netanyahu on this Washington visit. He also put out the word via the White House press handlers that he would be doing something other than watching the address on television. This spared the president the sight of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle warmly greeting Netanyahu as he arrived and, especially, applauding him as he finished. Still, since he reportedly read the speech rather than watching it, he probably noticed the frequent notes of applause throughout the transcript.
For his part, Netanyahu said explicitly that his visit was not meant as an attack on Obama or to inject partisanship into diplomatic relations between their countries. “My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds,” the prime minister said on Monday. “I have great respect for both.”
On his fundamental point, Netanyahu merely said what a large number of Americans already believe: Notwithstanding any agreement it may sign, Iran, the country still governed by the people who took Americans hostage for 444 days, cannot be trusted either to refrain from building nuclear weapons or from building missiles to carry those weapons to Israel, Europe or, eventually, here.
In fact, all discussion of missiles was off the table in the ongoing talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif. Kerry was in Geneva during Netanyahu’s speech, attempting to fashion a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of a deadline later this month. He continued to walk a fine line, remarking that anti-Israel bias by the United Nations Human Rights Panel was undercutting its mission. “Israel’s security is absolutely at the forefront of all our minds, but frankly, so is the security of all the other countries in the region, so is our security in the United States,” Kerry said. His rhetoric is at odds with the overly cautious potential plan the administration has discussed. And any deal, if one is reached, will contain the fundamental flaw of relying on Iran to keep its word.
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Obama suggested that the negotiations with Iran have less than a 50 percent chance of success. He urged Congress not to make it less, saying, “I’m less concerned, frankly, with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commentary than I’m with Congress taking actions that might undermine the talks before they’re completed.” But Congress will be acting with broad U.S. public support if it chooses to impose additional sanctions by June if no deal is reached, as a possible Senate plan currently suggests.
The real political problem for the administration is not that Netanyahu chose to make his case directly to the American people’s representatives, but that a large portion of Americans agree with him. That does not mean they necessarily agree with Netanyahu’s policies toward a Palestinian state or the establishment of Jewish settlements on occupied territory. House Speaker Joh Boehner was not endorsing those policies when he invited Netanyahu to speak. These issues are, in the end, irrelevant when it comes to America’s self-interest in its dealings with Iran.
As The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, Gerald Seib, observed during the speech, “The administration’s basic problem with Netanyahu’s speech will be his simple, flat assertion that a better deal could be negotiated.” The president’s mistake, as it so often is, is to think that this was all about him. It was really all about us.