Updated on February 25, 2015, 8:45 a.m. EST
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is refusing to meet with a group of ardently pro-Israel Democratic senators next week in Washington, but he very much wants to see the faces of Arab ambassadors in the audience during his controversial address to Congress.
Netanyahu's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has tried, without success, to recruit Arab ambassadors to come to his boss’s speech, e-mailing them personally to plead for their attendance. Dermer, who is not a trained diplomat, is the man who helped engineer the invitation to Netanyahu to speak to Congress in opposition to President Obama’s (so far theoretical) Iran nuclear deal.
Israeli sources tell me that Dermer in recent days has e-mailed at least two Arab ambassadors, those of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. He made the case in these e-mails that Sunni-majority Arab states and Israel have a common interest in thwarting a nuclear agreement with Shiite Iran—and that presenting a united and public front on Capitol Hill will help convince Congress to stop the Iran deal before it’s too late.
It is true that Israel and such countries as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait see Iran as an enemy, and believe that the Obama administration might be inadvertently (or, for the more conspiratorially minded, advertently) setting Iran on the path to nuclearization. It is also true that no Arab ambassador would allow himself to be used as a prop in Netanyahu’s controversial address, and I'm told that neither ambassador will be in attendance. (A related, subsidiary question is this: Just who from the diplomatic corps will actually attend the speech? Will any ambassador show up?)
The Netanyahu camp is worried about the political impact of its preemptive strike on Capitol Hill, I’m told. Netanyahu understands that he will be burning his remaining bridges to the White House by going up to the Hill next week. Israelis close to Netanyahu have been warning him that his decision to openly align with the Republican Party against a Democratic president is both unprecedented and deeply risky. In fact, Netanyahu’s own national security advisor, Yossi Cohen, told at least two people during his visit to Washington last week that he wished the speech were not taking place. According to people who have spoken with him, Cohen said that he is troubled by the timing of the speech —two weeks before the Israeli elections—and by the appearance that it is an attempt by Israel to insert itself directly into American partisan politics. Like most Israeli national security officials, he understands that the United States is Israel's second-line of defense, and can't quite believe that Netanyahu has so dramatically written off a president with almost two years left in office. (The Israeli embassy spokesman has sent me a statement from Cohen denying that he is opposed to Netanyahu's speech.*)
Netanyahu’s allies believe that the prime minister is correct to argue against the not-yet-finished deal (as its details are currently understood), because it could, over time, legitimize Iran's nuclear ambitions. But they are upset by the manner in which the speech was arranged. The White House had no idea that Dermer and the office of House Speaker John Boehner were negotiating the appearance until it was virtually a fait accompli. (Sources also told me that Cohen, a former official of the Mossad intelligence agency, did not know that Dermer and Netanyahu were planning such a speech until hours before it was publicly announced, which, if nothing else, speaks to the quality of Dermer’s and Netanyahu’s tradecraft.)
It would have been quite a powerful image: the ambassadors of Gulf Arab states providing, by their presence in Congress, tacit endorsement of Netanyahu’s anti-Iran (and anti-Obama) message. But the Arab states are not about to publicly stipulate what they privately say—that they agree with Netanyahu's understanding of Iran's intentions, and of the potential pitfalls of a nuclear agreement, and disagree with Obama's. And they are too smart to involve themselves in the partisan mess that this Netanyahu speech has become. I doubt, for instance, that they would turn down the offer of meetings with their friends in the Democratic Party Senate caucus.
* The Israeli embassy spokesman has sent along the following statement: "National security advisor Yossi Cohen stresses that 'In total contrast to what was published I am not opposed to PM Netanyahu's congressional speech. In my opinion, the speech is imperative at this time in order to explain why the emerging deal between Iran and the P5+1 is dangerous for Israel and the world.'"
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