Israel's GOP-trained Ambassador to the United States ignited an international incident when he conspired with Republican leaders to arrange an appearance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress to whip up congressional opposition to the Obama Administration's containment policy on Iran.
The upcoming March 3 speech is scheduled just two weeks before Israel's national elections and is widely seen as an attempt by Netanyahu to consolidate his right wing base by taking on President Obama, who was not informed beforehand of the Prime Minister's planned trip to Washington. Yet, by ambushing the administration in this way, Netanyahu has "provoked the nastiest public spat in what has been a consistently uneasy relationship between Obama and the prime minister," says Talking Points Memo.
The White House has already announced that President Obama will neither meet with Netanyahu when he comes to Washington nor attend his address to Congress. Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry will also be no-shows and several congressional Democrats plan to boycott the speech as well.
The Democrat's response to the Netanyahu government's egregious breach of diplomatic protocol has provoked at least one Republican Jewish group to threaten with hilarious chutzpah that it will punish all those who "put partisan politics ahead of principle and walk out on the prime minister of Israel."
Echoes of the "Citizen Genet Affair"
When Netanyahu named Ron Dermer to be Israel's ambassador to his country's most important ally and benefactor, those in the know had reason to see the move as provocative, says TPM.
Dermer came to Israel's top diplomatic post "with a lot of baggage," says TPM, most of it packed while he was a Republican Party operative who had helped Newt Gingrich draft his infamous Contract with America before emigrating to Israel where he soon became a close Netanyahu political confidant.
Students of US diplomatic history may notice similarities between the trouble Dermer has stirred up this month and the almost comic affronts of Citizen Edmond-Charles Genet, whose outrageous antics as the French Republic's American minister in 1793 violated President George Washington's proclamation of neutrality during the war then raging between England and Spain.
Indeed, it seems safe to say we haven't seen diplomatic interference in US domestic affairs this audacious since the "Citizen Genet Affair," when France's chief diplomat to the new American Republic had to be recalled in disgrace after nearly provoking war between the two democratic allies.
Genet was a political operative not a professional diplomat, and it showed. No sooner had Genet landed in America than he began commissioning French privateers who intended to use American ports in their raids against British shipping. Genet even went so far as to openly organize armed attacks against Spanish and British interests - and from American bases.
Events finally came to a head when the French privateer Citizen Genet captured the British brig Little Sally and was in the process of converting the prize into a 14-gun commerce raider (renamed La Petite Democrate) when Washington ordered the ship detained in Philadelphia. When the impertinent Genet ignored Washington's order and directed the privateer to sail anyway, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had no choice but to demand that the French government recall their trouble-making diplomat despite Jefferson's well-known French sympathies.
Like Genet, Ron Dermer does not fit the Foggy Bottom stereotype of the discreet diplomat who possesses an intuitive knack for transcending partisan politics at home and avoiding them abroad, writes TPM.
Fishing in Troubled Waters
Instead, as Ambassador to the United States, Dermer has been knee-deep in American partisan politics. He helped organize Mitt Romney's visit to Israel in the heat of the 2012 campaign. He made an appearance at a March 2014 meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, unofficially billed as the opening audition for 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls trying to get on the good side of the powerful GOP donor, billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
At about the same time, according to TPM, Dermer took part in a meeting of the liberal Center for American Progress that quickly degenerated into a shouting match between Dermer and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) when the ambassador started lecturing the audience on what is, and what is not, "legitimate criticism of Israel." Wexler, who supports a freeze of all West Bank settlements, took exception to Dermer's insinuation that "nobody should be criticizing anything that Israel is doing."
Dermer's imperious attitude also caused the liberal Jewish group, J Street, which supports a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, to boycott the Israeli embassy's annual Hanukkah party because the group believes that under Dermer's ambassadorship the embassy had become "a political apparatus" representing "the kind of petty politics that really do not serve the best interests of Israel."
These are just some of the Netanyahu government's many affronts to the Obama White House, which help to explain why skeptics feared Dermer would continue to be a partisan hatchet man once he was named to head Israel's Washington embassy.
In the view of his American critics, Dermer's carefully orchestrated efforts to inject Netanyahu into the congressional debate over Iranian sanctions without the knowledge of the Obama Administration, marks the diplomat as a political operative who brings the dark arts of partisan warfare to the world stage "where the stakes are too high and the consequences too severe for petty hardball," says TPM.
Netanyahu's Undiplomatic Diplomacy
At their worst, says TPM, Dermer's actions represent something far more troubling: "A direct reflection of Netanyahu's own approach to politics and diplomacy."
Longtime CIA analyst Paul Pillar wrote in the National Interest that the naming of Dermer as ambassador sent a strong message that "manipulation of American politics -- with a hard-right twist -- is not just something that arises from time to time in US-Israeli relations but instead is the main aspect of the relationship."
Like most right wing politicians, Bibi Netanyahu is far better at burning bridges than building them. Traditional diplomatic protocols matter little to someone like Netanyahu, who has shown a disturbing penchant in his past dealings with the United States, and with Obama in particular, of biting the hand that feeds him.
Jeffrey Goldberg, no liberal when it comes to Israel, says it is incumbent on Netanyahu, as the "junior partner" in the Israel-US relationship, to maintain "an even keel" in the relationship." Instead, Netanyahu has needlessly antagonized the White House by pretending he is in charge and arrogantly lecturing the President during their Oval Office meetings about the unqualified support Israel expects from the world's only superpower.
As in any partnership, Israel has its interests and we have ours. President Obama believes a negotiated neutralization of the Iranian nuclear threat would be in the best interests of both the US and the Middle East and so he has worked to prevent Netanyahu from acting on his threats of a preemptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, says Goldberg.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, believes that any settlement with Iran would by definition be hopelessly weak. Given the distance between them, Netanyahu could have tried "to create a discreet, continuous, and respectful dialogue" with Obama to shape the President's thinking prior to the end of negotiations, said Goldberg.
Then, as an act of good faith, Netanyahu could have cooperated with the President to advance issues of interest to the United States, such as progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, so as to demonstrate to his American partners that Israel was "interested in giving, not merely in taking."
Instead, said Goldberg, Netanyahu chose to pursue a course only less worse than a disastrous first strike against Iran. And that second-worst course was to "ruin his relations with Obama." This he accomplished by making a "desperate-seeming end-run around the President" with this upcoming appeal for Congress to oppose the President on a decision on Iran that Obama has not even made yet.
Israel Pursues Dangerous Course
According to Israeli officials with whom Goldberg has spoken, Netanyahu has told associates he has "written off" Obama. The problem with that approach, says Goldberg, is that a sitting US president "cannot be written off by a small, dependent ally, without terrible consequences."
No matter how much more politically and emotionally congenial Netanyahu may find the Republican Party's position on Iran, the hard reality is that Speaker John Boehner is not the commander-in-chief, says Goldberg. Nor do the Republicans in Congress make US foreign policy. And so, Goldberg says "it makes absolutely no sense for an Israeli leader to side so ostentatiously with a sitting American president's domestic political opposition."
By making trouble in US domestic politics, Netanyahu risks alienating another important constituency of Israel's, which is the large majority of American Jews who voted for Obama -- twice.
And these Jewish Americans resent being put "in a messy, uncomfortable spot" of having to choose between their President and the leader of a Jewish state whose behavior makes them "queasy," says Goldberg.
Ultimately, it is not in Israel's long term interest to divide the American Jewish community in this way because, as Goldberg says, Israeli prime ministers have two primary tasks: The first is to protect their country from existential threats. The second is to stay on the good side of the President and people of the United States.
And success in accomplishing this first task, says Goldberg, "is sometimes predicated on achieving this second."
According to Goldberg, the White House is not the only group whose teeth Netanyahu has set on edge with his impudent disregard for diplomatic tradition.
Netanyahu has also alienated elected Democrats, many of them Jewish, who say they are humiliated and angered by Netanyahu's arrogant antics that risk doing "irreparable" damage to Israel's relationship with the US.
Goldberg is puzzled why Netanyahu does not understand that alienating Democrats is not in the best interest of his country. "From what I can tell, he doubts that Democrats are a natural constituency for Israel, and he clearly believes that Obama is a genuine adversary," says Goldberg.
Underscoring how short-sighted Netanyahu's approach is, Goldberg says that American support for Israel has been a bipartisan cause in Washington for decades. Support from Democrats and Republicans alike is why Israeli prime ministers have historically been treated with such deference in Washington. It's also why the US has always been generous with Israeli aid packages and why the US has historically been committed to maintaining Israel's qualitative military advantage in the region.
Netanyahu's decision to pit Democrats against Republicans risks making support for Israel "a Republican issue" and thereby threatening the bipartisan nature of Israel's American support, says Goldberg.
US Official Calls Netanyahu a "Chickenshit"
It's not a good sign when a member of the American government, even anonymously, calls Israel's prime minister a "chickenshit," as one "senior Obama administration official" described Netanyahu to Jeffrey Goldberg.
Like the other adjectives unnamed US government officials have started using lately to describe Netanyahu to reporters -- words like recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, even "Aspergery" - the "chickenshit" comment is representative "of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors," says Goldberg.
It is also one more sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments "have moved toward a full-blown crisis," says Goldberg.
Given the breakdown in relations between the two countries, Goldberg says it would not be surprising if the Obama administration started providing less political cover for Israel against hostile resolutions in the UN.
It would be equally unsurprising, said Goldberg, for the US government to take a step Netanyahu is "loath" to see it take, namely a full public review of the administration's vision for a two-state solution.
It's a plan that Goldberg predicts would be complete with maps delineating "to Netanyahu's horror" what the US thinks Israel's future borders should be, ones based on 1967 lines and with significant West Bank settlement concessions.
That, says Goldberg, is the price Israel would be forced to pay for the "red-hot anger" Netanyahu has provoked in Washington with his settlement policies on the West Bank and with his building policies in Jerusalem that some administration officials fear may have fatally undermined Secretary of State Kerry's peace process in the region.
Beyond the particulars of American policy in the Middle East, the larger lesson to be learned from what might be called the "Ron Dermer Affair," is that whenever the prevailing attitudes and worldview of a country move to the far right, as they have in Israel in recent years under Prime Minister Netanyahu, tempers grow short; conflict becomes more frequent and sharper-edged; the customs, norms and traditions of diplomacy and politics are strained to the breaking point; and the drums of war beat louder.
If truth is the first casualty of war, then politics and diplomacy are the all too frequent collateral damage of the right wing mindset.