The Netanyahu affair vindicated Arab view of US

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is greeted by members of US Congress. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images / AFP
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is greeted by members of US Congress. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images / AFP

If “the Netanyahu affair” weren’t bad enough, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has announced that he wants a vote early next week on a bill that will require the White House to secure Congressional approval of any agreement between the P5+1 and Iran.

Mr McConnell’s surprise move may have made the pro-Israel lobby happy, but in acting unilaterally he may have driven yet another nail in the coffin of bipartisan cooperation. So far, the Republican Party has done the following: it tried to embarrass the US president by inviting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress. And it broke the deal with Democratic colleagues to delay the Congressional review bill until after March 23. That’s the deadline for this phase of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. Shortly after Mr McConnell announced his intentions for early next week, key Democrat senators, who were among the original co-sponsors of the bill, denounced his move as partisan. This raises doubts about whether the bill will get the votes it needs to be debated on the Senate floor.

The Republican Party has handled this entire week shamefully. It was mortifying to see hundreds of US lawmakers bobbing up and down in rapturous applause as the Israeli prime minister delivered a mix of hokey platitudes, shopworn diatribes and shameless appeals to the “constitution, Moses, and the holocaust”. The Republican applause was prompted not so much by the brilliance of Mr Netanyahu’s words as because they were intended as jabs at President Obama. And the smirk on Mr Netanyahu’s face as he waved at the cheering crowd appeared to say: keep up the applause guys, because this scene is playing well back home.

As if to accentuate this unseemly misuse of the US Congress to clobber the president and as a prop in Mr Netanyahu’s reelection video, there was the disturbing sight of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson sitting self-satisfied in the first row of the gallery.

The scene reminded me of those Hollywood fat cats who buy the ridiculously expensive front-row seats at Los Angeles Lakers basketball games. But they only do so for the season, while Mr Adelson, had the look of the guy who not only paid for the seat, but owns the team and arranged for the game to be played. After all, he poured more than $100 million (Dh3.67m) into the effort to defeat Mr Obama in 2012 and many millions more to support the Republican Party’s takeover of the Senate in 2014. It doesn’t matter whether one trusts Iran’s intentions or respects Mr Obama’s leadership, what the Republicans and Israeli prime minister did was wrong on many levels.

In the eyes of the world, it wasn’t the president who was hurt, but the prestige of the United States. In June 2011, I was in the Middle East during Mr Netanyahu’s last address before a joint session of Congress. He used that occasion to reject Mr Obama’s effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and received 29 standing ovations for his efforts. On that trip, I was repeatedly asked by Arab friends and officials: how could your Congress invite a foreign leader to insult your president and then cheer him on?” This recent appearance is more of the same and establishes the pattern: Mr Netanyahu uses Congress to sabotage the president, and Congress uses Mr Netanyahu to insult the president.

Watching all this play out establishes all too clearly why Arab public opinion of the US is so low. With apologies to George W Bush, it’s not because they hate America’s “values”, as he put it, of freedom and democracy”. Rather, it’s because the US behaves so stupidly and slavishly towards all things related to Israel. The entire affair also made clear why the American public has such a miserable view of Congress. The silly fawning over the Israeli prime minister and the “frat party” behaviour in the chamber of the “most important legislative body in the world” demonstrated so little self-respect that the 9 per cent approval rating that the American public gives to Congress seems a bit too generous.

Ignored by Congress and the media alike was the fact that Mr Netanyahu’s insults and condescension, while directed at the president, also took aim at the other members of the P5+1.

By striking out at a deal that has not yet been completed, the Republican Party is also insulting America’s major European allies, such as the UK, France, and Germany. They are members of the P5+1 and they are also involved in the negotiating process with Iran. Israel may be wearing out its welcome in Europe, but that’s no reason for Congress to want to join Israel’s increasing isolation by jeopardising relations with America’s trans-­Atlantic partners.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

Published: March 7, 2015 04:00 AM

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