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Bibi, Stay Home

I wrote previously about the balance of powers problem in the federal government. As Congress continues to refuse to act on the pressing issues confronting the nation, President Obama has chosen to take executive action under existing laws to mitigate the developing crises in competitiveness (education), immigration and global climate change. The Republican-held Congress continues to complain.

While I believe that the House of Representatives under Boehner “dost protesteth too much” – after all, they have the opportunity to pass legislation – it seems more and more obvious that they pursue an agenda driven by narrow political calculation. I see the shadow of Karl Rove still lurking in the background. Rove was the campaign adviser that filtered for political impact all Cabinet decisions in W’s first term. He or his ilk appear to be doing the same for the Congress.

This began with the “poison pill” terms in the first-term budget negotiations that preserved high-income tax breaks. It continues with leaving Obama to wrestle with the nation’s intractable problems, and crying “foul” on separation of powers whenever a Republican constituent has an ox gored. And it proceeds now with a clear trespass on the President’s foreign policy remit with the invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, to speak before the Congress.

Netanyahu is involved in his own political shenanigans at home. Prior to his election as prime minister, Israel was the target of frequent suicide bombing attacks. The terrorist attacks were the asymmetrical Palestinian response to ongoing Israeli settlement of the occupied territories. The stupidity of the strategy was evidenced in Netanyahu’s election in 2000, as the Israeli public eventually accepted his long-established “greater Israel” policy as the only way to restore internal security. However, years of secure living and the growing problem of domestic intimidation by Orthodox Jews is causing the Israeli public to broaden their concerns, and think fundamentally about justice. Raising the specter of Iranian attack preserves the political psychology that brought Netanyahu into office.

Israel has benefited from the action of both US presidents to serve in the 21st century. The removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq ended a bounty program that paid $30,000 to the families of suicide bombers. US-led global sanctions against Iran have also prevented an end to Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region. John Kerry has already made clear that the U.S. was motivated to a great extent by concerns for Israeli security, and Netanyahu’s panicked protests against diplomatic reconciliation between the US and Iran seems untrusting.

What other issues could be driving Netanyahu’s move? Obama has embarrassed him on at least one occasion in memory – letting comments regarding Netanyahu’s honesty slip out to the press during an open-mike chat with the French President. The rise of a respectable Palestinian counter-part in Mahoud Abbas has allowed the US to apply pressure against Israel to bring concessions to the negotiating table. (The lack of such concessions continues to place Abbas in danger from Palestinian extremists, making him dependent upon Israeli security, and thus undermining his authority.)

But the pro-Israel vote in America includes the historically Democratic Jews, and as we saw in 2000, that vote is enough to swing key states. So Netanyahu and Boehner have common cause in this engagement: embarrass Demcratic Foreign Policy to improve Republican chances for the 2016 presidential elections, and reinforce the ability of Israel to be the tail that wags America’s Middle Eastern policy.

Given this complicated political calculus, Netanyahu would be best advised to stay home, pursuing his agenda in coordination with the Administration’s Foreign Policy team. If this issue becomes a Republican talking point, placing the Jewish vote as a token to trade in the 2016 presidential election is going to reduce its strength over the long run. This is reflected in the decision by Democratic Representatives of Jewish heritage to boycott his speech. Once the Jewish vote is divided, there is less and less reason for any presidential candidate to cater to the concerns of Israel, while currently they get the best of both worlds: respected collaborators for Democratic presidents, and a justification for Republican hawkishness.

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