Small World: Guess who’s coming to visit?

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

President Obama had barely taken off his coat and tie after his State of the Union address when House Speaker Boehner announced that he had invited Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of the Congress. There was no advance word to the White House or the Democratic minority from Boehner or from Israel to the White House about the planned visit. To say that these moves violated diplomatic protocol was the mildest rebuke the president’s spokesman could devise. Obama, miffed, announced he would not meet with the Prime Minister.

Plainly, the Boehner-Netanyahu ploy has political motivation at its core: The Israeli faces tough elections on March 17 and needs to show that his U.S. connections are in good shape. The Republican hopes to defeat Obama’s work on an Iran agreement that would prevent development of a nuclear weapon while allowing — with thorough inspections — a peaceful nuclear power program and relief on economic sanctions.

“Mutual advantage” between the two conservative parties puts it mildly. When Netanyahu last spoke to Congress in May 2011 he garnered 29 standing ovations. He would undoubtedly do as well on this his third joint House and Senate session. Those members who will be cheerfully cheering will be hoping for the favors of right-wing Americans who support the intransigent right in Israel, e.g., the billionaire gambling czar Sheldon Adelson (spent $100 million-plus to defeat Obama in 2012). Maintaining hostility toward Iran is big motivator for this bunch as manifested by the large campaign donations received by Senators Menendez (D) and Kirk (R), who lead the anti-Iran assault. They support a bill, which would impose new sanctions — an act that Obama says would kill the deal.

Does it bother strict interpreters of the Constitution that American elected officials are taking their guidance from a foreign government rather than from the American elected as president and charged with protecting our security and directing our foreign relations? Apparently not. Apparently it is not enough for the Congress to advise and appropriate funds; the legislators are determined to have a role in the shaping and implementation of policies chosen by the executive branch.

Does it matter to the self-proclaimed patriots that a foreign regime, often with quite different interests from ours, has such strong influence over the governing apparatus in Washington? It’s one thing for the United States to be a generous donor of aid and security assistance to Israel. It’s quite another matter when American interests and plans are thwarted by Israel because they collide with that friend’s. When does Washington put U.S. interests first and stand up to a client state?

A binding nuclear agreement with Iran is definitely in America’s interest: It would remove the threat of Tehran’s development of a weapon and open the way to a gradual improvement in relations with our 35-year antagonist. Washington and Tehran share several objectives for the region: resistance against Islamic State aggression; rebuilding stability and security in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; combating drugs.

There are also points of serious differences: Iran’s bitter opposition to Israel and human rights among many other causes. I believe we can make better progress on narrowing these disputes from a relationship of growing trust than one of abiding hostility.

Iran policy, like our efforts to effect change in Cuba, has proven a failure in many respects. The regime in Tehran — like the one in Havana — has matured and is an unlikely threat to its region. Rather, cooperation with these former enemies can benefit us economically as well as politically. As the president has emphasized, it is time to try different approaches — patiently, carefully and without primary emphasis on military power.

What about Israel? Its leaders will obviously continue to instill fear in their electorate — fear of an Iranian nuke, fear of terrorism — that has kept them in power. It is time that Israelis be weaned from those fears and introduced to a more realistic understanding of its neighbors. Unless a majority of Israelis are willing to take the risks of peace by accepting a fair agreement with an independent Palestine, they will be condemned to life in a garrison state with steadily diminishing democratic and liberal values. Already the support of younger generations is fading. A time of testing lies ahead.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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