John Boehner's outrageous plan to help a foreign leader undermine Obama
Updated by Max Fisher
House Speaker John Boehner has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress in February, on the topic of Iran. On the surface, this might seem innocent enough. Israel is a close American ally. Surely he should be welcome in Congress, particularly to discuss an issue that concerns his country.
On the surface, Netanyahu's speech will be about opposing Obama's nuclear talks with Iran and supporting Republican-led sanctions meant to blow up those talks.
But there's more than meets the eye here. Netanyahu is playing a game with US domestic politics to try to undermine and pressure Obama — and thus steer US foreign policy. Boehner wants to help him out. By reaching out to Netanyahu directly and setting up a visit without the knowledge of the White House, he is undermining not just Obama's policies but his very leadership of US foreign policy. The fact that Netanyahu is once again meddling in American politics, and that a US political party is siding with a foreign country over their own president, is extremely unusual, and a major break with the way that foreign relations usually work.
Throughout Obama's tenure, he has clashed with Netanyahu. That is no secret, and it's nothing new for American and Israeli leaders to disagree, sometimes very publicly. But Netanyahu, beginning in May 2011, adopted a new strategy to try to deal with this: using domestic American politics as a way to try to push around Obama.
During a trip that month to Washington, Netanyahu publicly lectured Obama at a press conference and then gave a speech to Congress slamming the president. That speech, also hosted by Republicans, received many standing ovations for Netanyahu's finger-wagging criticism of Obama.
At first it appeared that Netanyahu was merely trying to steer Obama's foreign policy in a direction that he, Netanyahu, preferred. Obama wanted Netanyahu to freeze Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank, for example; Obama has also sought, in his second term, to reach a nuclear deal with Iran that Netanyahu earnestly believes is a bad idea.
Netanyahu's first responsibility is to Israel's national interests, not to Obama, so it makes sense that he would push for policies that he thinks are good for Israel.
But in 2011 Netanyahu started going a step further, and appeared to be working to actively remove Obama from power. During the 2012 election cycle, Netanyahu and his government were increasingly critical of Obama and supportive of Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for whom he at times appeared to be actively campaigning. Netanyahu's criticisms of Obama were so pointed that some of Obama's opponents cut a campaign ad out of them. It became a joke within Israel that Netanyahu saw himself not as the leader of a sovereign country, but as the Republican senator from Israel.
But trying to unseat a foreign leader is not a joke, especially when that foreign leader is funding your military and guaranteeing your nation's security.
Netanyahu's government ramped down this strategy after Obama won; he even gave Obama the world's most awkward congratulations speech. But throughout Obama's second term he has once again gradually escalated from trying to influence Obama to actively undermining both the president and his party. The new Israeli ambassador to the US for months would not even bother to meet with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, yet held many meetings with Republican fundraiser Sheldon Adelson. Israel's foreign policy, in other words, was more focused on undermining the American leadership than working with it.