Last week, I had some unkind words for the New York Times, whose account of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress had to be amended to reflect the fact that Bibi accepted the invitation after the White House was informed, not before. No sooner had the piece run than friends, colleagues, and assorted observers began to frantically assail me with the idea that while the Times had issued a correction, the question of whether Bibi accepted the invitation before or after wasn’t important after all. The real issue, they scolded me, in increasingly exasperated and acrimonious language, was and remains Bibi’s flauting of the established rules of respectful behavior.
In the Calvin and Hobbes comics, Calvin enjoyed playing a very special game called Calvinball, in which he made up the rules as he went along to make sure he was always winning. Reading the continuous coverage of Bibi’s visit in the last few days makes you feel that the White House and its supporters are now playing their own version of Calvinball; let’s call it “protocol,” which is the official-sounding scare-word they use to imply that Bibi’s behavior was thoroughly out-of-bounds.
So, what precise point of “protocol” did Bibi outrageously violate? Well, went the original version, he accepted an invitation to address Congress without the White House being informed that he was coming—which is certainly no way to behave. Once the New York Times admitted that this story, which it printed, was 100 percent wrong—and that the White House had in fact been properly informed—the conversation about protocol miraculously morphed. Keeping the all-important word “protocol” in play, the discussion now revolves around President Barack Obama’s statement that he would not meet with Bibi so close to the Israeli elections in March; that, Obama said, would be a violation of “protocol.” Which is a fine point, except for the fact that Bibi never asked for such a meeting. Instead, he was invited to address Congress by the speaker of the House of Representatives, who is the leader of a coequal branch of government—just as he had been invited in 2011 by the very same man to address the very same branch of government without anyone mentioning the word “protocol.”
Why all the fuss right now? There are two useful ways to approach the question. The first is to try and imagine what would not have been a violation of the shifting rules of “protocol.” Indulge me here. Imagine John Boehner coming up with the idea to invite the prime minister of Israel to speak. Singularly committed to the sanctity of bipartisanship—the idea, that is, that no decision in Washington should be made without the benign approval of both parties—Boehner then calls the White House. “I have this crazy idea,” he says. “How about a speech from Bibi?” On the other end of the line, crickets. “The thing is, John,” say the Democrats, “we don’t really like Bibi, and his Iran policy is not really the one we’re trying to promote. Mind scrapping the whole thing?” Fighting back a tear, Boehner agrees. “Sure thing, guys,” he says. “Sorry for bringing it up. See you later at the congressional gym.”
This scenario, of course, is idiotic—yet it’s precisely the one so many Obama supporters have been strongly promoting in tones of heavy outrage this past week. Which leads me to the second, more useful way of thinking about the conflict, namely asking why Bibi is so intent on making a speech that was bound to piss off the White House and its itchy-fingered defenders.
The theory that’s being floated around by custodians of political civility and nonpartisanship like the New York Times, Josh Marshall, Matt Duss, et al., is that Bibi’s desire to speak to Congress is a petty bit of electioneering whose real audience is back home in Israel. If you believe that, you believe that Bibi and his men think that the best way to get Israelis to vote for him on March 17 is to make big-picture speeches in America two weeks earlier—while risking a very public pre-election row with your greatest ally and economic benefactor. You believe, bluntly put, that Bibi is a political moron in search of a blatant photo op that will allow him to bellow to a nation of his fellow troglodytes who will then vote for him. I don’t like Bibi very much, but I grew up with the man, and guess what: He’s smarter than that. And so is my toddler, who learned everything she knows about power dynamics and international politics from watching Frozen.
But there is another, much more serious explanation for Bibi’s eagerness to come to Washington in the middle of an election campaign that most polls show him winning handily: March 24 is the deadline for the framework agreement in the ongoing negotiations with Iran. As Michael Doran, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense and senior policy director in charge of the Middle East at the National Security Council, has shown in his factually grounded analysis of Obama’s Iran policy, when it comes to negotiating with the Islamic Republic, the Obama Administration is committed to keeping everyone in the dark. Unaware that he was being recorded, Benjamin Rhodes, a key Obama national security adviser, told a gathering of Democratic activists last year that Obama is hoping to keep Congress out of the loop as much as possible. “We’re already kind of thinking through, how do we structure a deal so we don’t necessarily require legislative action right away,” Rhodes said.
Congress, of course, may strongly disagree with Obama’s approach, especially now that it is controlled by the GOP. Which is why Congress can do many things to make sure the talks with Iran proceed with caution and some real degree of oversight, which Obama and his men are eager to avoid. As former Justice Department officials David Rivkin and Lee Casey wrote in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “Congress should pass legislation now clearly stating the parameters of an acceptable nuclear deal with Iran, emphasizing the need to eliminate any Iranian breakout capability. It should also put the Iranians and our allies on notice that, absent congressional approval, the president cannot deliver comprehensive and permanent relief from the existing sanctions statutes.”
As Congress is about to face off with the president over these crucial issues, it makes sense that they might want to hear from the leader of one of the nations most threatened by Iranian aggression—who has warned about the dangers of an Iranian nuclear break-out for years, and has also demonstrated a pragmatic commitment to disarming Iran by way of joint diplomatic efforts rather than a unilateral Israeli strike. The looming March deadline and the face-off between the president and Congress—including prominent congressional Democrats—provide eminently sane and reasonable explanations for the timing of Bibi’s speech; that so many of Obama’s sycophants so aggressively promote the idea that Bibi is a re-election-crazy nutcase who doesn’t actually care much about Iran is truly baffling.
The Times’ insistence on sticking to the silly “protocol” storyline is truly maddening because there are real issues at stake here. The plain truth is that Obama and Bibi radically disagree on the direction that a joint Iran policy should take. Bibi forswore an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities because of the stated commitment of the past two U.S. administrations to U.N.-approved sanctions whose stated goal was to eliminate Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons. Now, it seems, American policy has swung 180 degrees in the opposite direction—toward embracing the idea of an unreconstructed Iran as a key U.S. ally in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and beyond. Instead of eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, the Iranians will be able to retain a large proportion of their centrifuges and facilities, while sanctions will be lifted—strengthening the current regime, and allowing the Iranians to buy more of whatever they want to buy. Instead of finding new meanings for the word “protocol,” the Times might profitably spend its time on figuring out why the White House lied to them—and setting out the terms of a very real policy debate in a way that illuminates the administration’s choices. Those choices may be right, and they may be wrong. But it seems clear that Times readers would be better served by some real attention to what the administration is doing and why than by buying into a deceptive spin campaign designed to undercut the arguments of its most visible and vocal opponent.
Alas, the nonsense keeps on coming. The most recent storyline, also promoted heavily by the Times, that Bibi’s speech has met with opposition from a wide coalition including everyone from some Democrats to the ADL and the leader of the Reform movement somehow suggests he is empirically in the wrong. Reporters who cite the ADL’s opposition to Bibi’s speech might have noted that the man who will step in as the ADL’s head this summer, Jonathan Greenblatt, is currently employed as one of Obama’s advisers—which would make opposing Obama kind of sticky. Bibi surely has his detractors, and some of them have valid reasons for opposing his speech, even for loathing him, but the condemnation—in response to phone calls from reporters—is far from uniform. If it was, the story would not have generated so much attention for so long.
So here, again, are the facts: John Boehner invited Bibi to speak on an issue of national importance to both the United States and to Israel, and Bibi accepted. The White House was informed of the invitation in advance, as is proper. Democrats were not consulted. Tzipi Livni, Buji Herzog, Jonathan Greenblatt, and the editorial board of the New York Times were not consulted either. This is all according to custom and according to precedent. Any other reading of this story is a violation of protocol.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.