The Perfect Political Storm Rolls In and Out of Washington
The dubious but utterly entertaining Washington news this week centered on a speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered to the United States Congress. Sold as some kind of diplomatic mission of great import between unwavering allies with undertones of disrespect for normal international and domestic protocol, the event was entirely political in every way, shape and form. It is anything but rare to have pure political theater transpire in D.C.—that’s pretty much the point of it—but for those of us enamored with such shameless showboating this one had a singular quality. It was the Hope Diamond of political theater, an aurora borealis moment, a political junkie’s Woodstock, if you’ll allow.
In a nutshell this baby was Shakespeare’s yummy “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In this case we had three idiots; heads of state butting over diplomatic policies starring a lame-duck president reconfiguring a foreign policy legacy, a lesser party of power using the legislative branch of the U.S. government as a backdrop for another country’s national election, and a prime minister desperately trying to use this unabashedly staged affair as a campaign cudgel.
But remember, this is all political melodrama that means less than nothing beyond the massive egos involved. Like most playacting, whether by children on a sugar jag or dogs rolling on their backs soliciting belly rubs, this is pure grandstanding for grandstanding sake.
What Netanyahu claimed to be accomplishing with this maneuver was to stress his country’s concerns over an ongoing diplomatic deal being hammered out by the Obama administration and Iran to halt its alleged nuclear weapons development. On the shiny surface, considering the madness that is Iran, this seems like a reasonable gesture if one ignores the history of Netanyahu as a fervent veteran of the Israel Defense Force during Israel’s most triumphant military moment, 1968’s Six-Day War, and serving fanatically in the special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal during its most aggressive period of raids in the late ’60s, early ’70s.
Simply put, Netanyahu, the first ever state-born secularist Israeli to become prime minster, is, has been, and will always be embarrassingly unaware of anything approaching the concept of diplomacy. He is a military man and has made no bones about it since he emerged on Israel’s political scene in the 1990s. I was in Jerusalem in the spring of 1996 the day he was handed the gig, standing within a stone’s throw of the Western Wall amongst a weirdly agitated and euphoric crowd bellowing erratically in both Arabic and Hebrew. His election was immediately divisive and he served his first term with unapologetic intransigence rarely seen in his position, which is the power arm of America’s interest in the Middle East.
Granted, the argument for Netanyahu’s heralded trip here among those who are not the Israeli prime minster is that Iran has spent decades shouting this and that about obliterating the Satan that is Israel. Yes, and the sun comes up tomorrow. Netanyahu, whose only plan is military force, was already laughed out of the United Nations for telling the world Iran was weeks from having a nuclear weapon in 2012. Nothing new here, except that it includes one key factor; the prime minster is up for a heavily challenged re-election two weeks to the day he delivers said speech. His country is mired in economic and housing crises due to his apparently abysmal domestic policies and he’s being investigated for some kind of tax fraud.
Shit, it was never hard to figure Netanyahu out, which is an enviable trait. He is as transparent as they come, unwaveringly patriotic and fervently paranoid, a dangerous combination in the region in which he plies his trade. But he is also a pathetic megalomaniac with no compunction about using any method available to him in order to increase his bloated sense of personal destiny; in other words, excellent D.C. material.
I remember lying in bed in my hotel room at the Galei Kinneret on the banks of the Sea of Galilee watching Netanyahu during the first prime minister debate ever to be internationally broadcast and conducted entirely in English, and this is what I wrote in Trailing Jesus, the book I was researching in May of ’96: “I am enamored by the slick movements and sharp quips of a tanned and silver-maned Bibi (his nickname), tossing aside notions that he will ignore all but Jewish Israelis if elected. He is articulate and funny, and does not hesitate to confront any issue with aplomb. The more calculated and efficient (Shimon) Peres is insightful and poignant, thinking out his answers before replying, but he barely talks above a whisper and does not possess a single dramatic hand movement to accentuate his points. Peres, I decide before drifting off to sleep, is doomed.”
So you have a bold, Teddy Roosevelt character working out a deal with the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives when he was denied access to the Capital by the White House due, according to the Obama administration, to an unwritten bullshit rule that heads of state not interact when one is embroiled in an election season. The rule is bullshit because it happens all the time, too many to note here. Simply, both the president and the prime minster were engaging in competing political grandstands. The former teetering on the final stages of either a triumphant, groundbreaking deal with one of the great enemies of the Middle East to cease its supposed march to nuclear capabilities or a disastrous appeasement of a rogue nation, and the latter strategically using its most powerful and influential ally to appear vaingloriously imperial.
For his part, House Speaker John Boehner used this opportunity to stick it to the president. Once again, on the shiny surface, Boehner, and his place as the national face of the Republican Party, appears to side with the tough-talking Netanyahu and his dire-speak of siding with terrorists being the bane of the free world. The move, proffering this unprecedented invitation to a prime minister during an election campaign against the will of a sitting president, gains him much needed political points with the core of his party, who has recently made him once again look like a feckless tool of obstruction. After spending days condescendingly assuring the national press that he had a deal in place to fund Homeland Security, his constituency jobbed him by voting it down. He is weak and ineffectual and needs this bad.
Of course, for his part in this passion play, the president could have avoided all this by ignoring the unwritten bullshit rule to quickly and quietly meet with Netanyahu and send him on his way. However, in another calculated maneuver, Obama’s snubbing of a prime minister had less to do with avoiding the influencing of an election and more to do with Netanyahu screwing around with his precious Iranian deal by yammering jingoistic nonsense in his nation’s capital building.
For all intents and purposes, a foreign primes minister suckered the United States Congress into hosting his campaign shenanigans, a U.S. president looks completely inconsequential on the world stage, and Benjamin Netanyahu continues his unchecked public buffoonery. This was the political equivalent of a perfect storm, something you might find once or twice in a lifetime outside an outlandish Hollywood script. But none of it, none, was news. Showbiz rarely is.