The Cycle of Petulance in the U.S. and Israel

Nobody seems to be acting exclusively in the world's best interest.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office on March 3, 2014. (National Journal)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress will not reduce Iran's nuclear ambitions or arsenal. But it will diminish an important maxim of U.S. foreign policy: Support of Israel is a bipartisan issue.

Even more, the ugly precedents set in the run-up to Tuesday's address could make it harder for U.S. presidents to execute foreign policy free of domestic politics for years to come—a prospect that should worry Republicans as much as Democrats.

Who do we blame? Three men leading badly: Netanyahu, House Speaker John Boehner, and President Obama. Let's review how we got here.

1. Drawing one of his famous red lines, Obama declared that allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon "would not be tolerable" because it would spark a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East. "I don't bluff," he told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg three years ago. "We've got Israel's back."

2. Obama's team is now negotiating a deal that appears to give Iran the right to enrich uranium: It would allow Tehran to keep thousands of centrifuges and would lapse after 10 or 15 years. The administration is demanding inspections of nuclear facilities, including uranium mines.

3. Netanyahu fears the deal would allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, which would create an existential threat to his nation. He favors a continuation of sanctions against Iran, which would be eased under a deal.

4. The White House says Obama's approach could avoid war. Netanyahu says Obama's approach could destroy Israel.

5. Netanyahu and his aides, with the help of what Goldberg called "their Republican handmaidens," arranged for the prime minister to address Congress. In a breach of protocol, the White House was not consulted and Netanyahu accomplished a foreign leader's dream: He used a U.S. political party as leverage against the American commander-in-chief.

6. This is also about politics for Netanyahu. He faces an election in two weeks. "The more the White House criticizes Netanyahu, the more votes he gets from the right and, to a certain extent, from the center," Eytan Gilboa, a professor who specializes in U.S.-Israel relations at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University, told Politico.

7. House Speaker John Boehner doesn't like to be called a handmaiden. Noting that the House is an equal branch of government, he justified the invitation by saying Netanyahu had important things to say "about the serious threat that Iran poses and the serious threat of radical Islam."

8. An address was not needed to explain the threat. Every member of Congress with access to newspapers, a television, or the Internet already knows Netanyahu's position. In the American media, he's as ubiquitous as reality TV. "If all the articles, statements, and analyses produced in the United States on this subject could be traded for centrifuges," Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan wrote, "the Iranian nuclear program would be eliminated in a week."

9. Obama had a chance to swallow his pride and rise above the pettiness—to be the adult. But, no: He refused to meet Netanyahu.

10. Obama doesn't like to be humiliated. He and his aides decided to treat the Israeli government as dismissively as he does the GOP, accusing the Israelis of leaking negotiation details, questioning Netanyahu's credibility, and calling the congressional speech "destructive."

11. On Sunday, Obama ally Dianne Feinstein said Netanyahu is "arrogant" for asserting that he speaks for all Jews. "He doesn't speak for me on this," the California Democrat told CNN's Dana Bash on "State of the Union."

12. The same day, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States deserves the "benefit of the doubt" in negotiating with Iran. Some might call that naïve, if not arrogant, given the administration's record of underestimating threats, overhyping accords, and back-peddling on foreign commitments.

13. An NBC/Wall Street Journal polls shows that half of Americans do not think Boehner should have invited Netanyahu, compared with 30 percent who believe it was fine. The results broke along party lines.

This isn't just about Israel. "From now on, whenever the opposition party happens to control Congress—a common enough occurrence—it may call in a foreign leader to speak to a joint meeting of Congress against a president and his policies," Kagan wrote. "Think of how this might have played out in the past. A Democratic-controlled Congress in the 1980s might, for instance, have called the Nobel Prize-winning Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to denounce President Ronald Reagan's policies in Central America. A Democratic-controlled Congress in 2003 might have called French President Jacques Chirac to oppose President George W. Bush's impending war in Iraq."

All this leaves the world in a dangerous place. Netanyahu, Obama, and congressional Republicans are consumed by their separate politics, focused on winning the next news cycle rather than finding a way to avoid a nuclear-arms race and another Middle East war.

We wouldn't be at this place if Obama could be trusted to cut a strong deal, if Netanyahu hadn't decided to subvert the president, if Boehner wasn't such a political sop, if somebody had the courage to stop this cycle of petulance.

But, no. We're left with a debate over blame—meaningless parsing. It hardly matters who is acting worse when nobody seems to be acting exclusively in the world's best interests.