Netanyahu v Obama: An Israeli campaigning in America

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SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- BINYAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel’s prime minister, could not have hoped for a better soapbox. Two weeks before Israelis go to the polls, he will take his stand on the Congress podium at the invitation of the Speaker, John Boehner, a Republican friend of Israel. From this most visible stage Mr Netanyahu will present himself as the guardian of Israel’s security—in contrast to Barack Obama, who will be chided for his supposed readiness to yield in negotiations with Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran. To the ire of Mr Obama’s team, which tends to hold its nose when Mr Netanyahu approaches, the American administration was not even consulted in advance of the visit. In turn, the president refused to receive the Israeli prime minister.

Mr Netanyahu’s rivals at home have been quick to accuse him of putting himself before his country’s ties with its chief ally. Mr Netanyahu is “harming the security of Israel and its soldiers for politics,” says his former minister, Tzipi Livni, now the main opposition party’s co-leader. Some Israeli generals, too, are worried. “Officially the level of co-operation in military affairs and the intelligence-sharing is as high as ever,” says a senior officer. “But on a more personal level, the suspicion between the two leaders trickles down and makes things more difficult.”

Mr Netanyahu’s advisers say his speech will nonetheless please voters back home. “They care more about standing up for Israel’s interests than a diplomatic spat with the administration,” says a ministerial colleague. Not only is Mr Netanyahu strong enough to face down America’s president, he adds, but whatever the personal rancour between the two men “the White House has been very good at safeguarding Israel’s strategic alliances”.

Bad blood between Israeli leaders and American presidents ahead of Israeli elections is nothing new. In 1992 George Bush, annoyed by the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, withheld some loan guarantees sought by Israel. This helped Yitzhak Rabin’s Labour party clinch the election. In 1996 Bill Clinton convened a “peacemakers’ summit” of world leaders in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to boost Shimon Peres’s flagging campaign against Mr Netanyahu—in vain.

Israeli politicians working Congress with their lobbies in the face of a recalcitrant president can wield a lot of influence. Mr Netanyahu, a political attaché at Israel’s Washington embassy in the early 1980s, is an expert. In October, after Mr Obama again complained about settlement-building, Mr Netanyahu even pontificated on “American values.” His close friendship with Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish-American casino magnate who is a leading donor to the Republican Party, gives him extra leverage. His ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, has close ties to Republicans, too.

Some Israelis fear Mr Netanyahu is unnecessarily ruffling feathers. His relations with Mr Obama never fully recovered after Mr Adelson spent $100m-plus on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. Israeli pundits wonder whether Mr Netanyahu could lose Israel its long-standing bipartisan support in Congress. Mr Obama’s people have so far limited their latest criticism to irate private asides and minor public remonstrations. But Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in Congress, suggested Democrats might skip Mr Netanyahu’s congressional appearance. She says: “I see him on TV every Sunday morning.”

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