Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 March 2018

Netanyahu’s US trip won’t prompt any backlash yet ...

Netanyahu's upcoming speech to Congress highlights the fact that the US-Israel relationship is developing in a direction that isn't doing either country any favours, writes Hussein Ibish

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming speech to the US Congress highlights growing division between the two countries. Sebastian Scheiner / AP
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming speech to the US Congress highlights growing division between the two countries. Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3 is almost certain to go ahead as scheduled, and, after a period of recrimination, fade quickly into memory with no practical repercussions.

Mr Netanyahu is going to Washington to complain about US policies, particularly regarding Iran. He was invited by the Republicans who control Congress, behind the back of Barack Obama. This is much more than a breach of protocol. It’s a direct affront. In terms of the bilateral relationship, it could hardly be more inappropriate.

It is, in effect, another intervention by Mr Netanyahu in the American political process. He is once again publicly siding with partisan Republicans against equally partisan Democrats. And, of course, he is seeking the support of American politicians in his own campaign to retain the premier’s office for another term following Israeli elections shortly after his congressional address.

Most members of Congress will attend his speech. He will get an enthusiastic reception, and applause from many, if not most, attendees during his punch lines. Criticism will be muted and restricted to observations about the improper process by which he was invited by Republican legislators, not his inevitable attack on US foreign policy or other implicit and explicit criticisms of the United States.

The Obama administration will, no doubt, continue to make its displeasure widely known. And there will be additional complaints from the administration that Mr Netanyahu has unfairly characterised US policies, which will be defended.

But that’s all that’s going to happen. There aren’t going to be any major repercussions for Mr Netanyahu or Israel. Indeed, the affair is likely to help Mr Netanyahu in his own election campaign.

Normally Israeli prime ministers who are perceived as disturbing relations with the United States find themselves at considerable political risk. In this case Mr Netanyahu’s position is different because of two factors.

First, Mr Obama is greatly disliked and mistrusted by a large number of Israeli Jews. Being seen as “standing up” to him is unlikely to offend this large group, most of whom are on the political centre and right.

Second, the widespread unrest in the Middle East has provided a vivid backdrop for Mr Netanyahu’s appeal to Israelis that he is a safe and trustworthy “security-first” leader who will protect them in an uncertain and potentially dangerous environment.

In recent years, Mr Netanyahu has been cultivating a “fortress Israel” mentality which views Israeli security as best defended by hunkering down, turning inward and preserving the status quo while waiting for the storm to pass.

Any Israeli who buys into this fundamental analysis is unlikely to be overly perturbed about minor disruptions in relations with the United States.

Moreover, Mr Netanyahu’s forthcoming affront is very unlikely to harm either him or Israel in the United States. He could hardly be more disliked by the Obama administration, so he has very little to lose on that score. But personalities are so incidental to the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States that is not the subject of active debate or consideration in the American political conversation. It is a settled issue, accepted by the entire mainstream and resting on a rock-solid bipartisan consensus. For now, that is.

Therefore, as long as Mr Netanyahu can remain Israel’s prime minister, he will continue to be welcomed in Washington and treated with respect, and possibly even forced and phoney affection. The administration will continue to pursue its policies no matter how much he complains. They will ignore him. But they will not retaliate in any meaningful sense, because it’s just not worth the headache.

But it is all a very useful index of a growing dysfunctionality in the US-Israel relationship.

Those outside the United States who believe that Israel somehow controls American politics or policies, or that Israel is the dominant partner in the relationship, are clearly wrong. It’s a silly conspiracy theory that only reflects a profound ignorance about the actual mechanics of American policymaking.

However, those inside the United States who think that the Israeli-American relationship is rational or reasonable, and who do not recognise when and how it frequently drifts into the indefensible, are also misguided. It’s an absurdity that the leader of a small and dependent state would be welcomed in Congress, and honoured by a joint session no less, with the express purpose of bashing US foreign policy.

There is no need to indulge in clichéd hyperbole such as citing George Washington’s warnings about “excessive partiality” to foreign powers to recognise that this embarrassing dynamic is completely inappropriate for the United States. And, while there won’t be any direct fallout this time, the controversy moves Israel ever closer to becoming a partisan issue and a political football in the United States.

Clearly, aspects of the US-Israel relationship are developing in a direction that isn’t doing either country any favours.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on ­Palestine

On Twitter: @ibishblog