About a month ago, just two days after Christmas, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) traveled to Jerusalem for a joint appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where the American lawmaker struck an interesting note.
“I’m here to tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, that the Congress will follow your lead,” Graham said.
Ordinarily, America’s elected lawmakers follow the American president’s lead on matters of international affairs, making the senator’s comment just a little jarring.
It was not, however, quite as jarring as today’s news.
House Speaker John Boehner is inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on February 11. The invitation comes as the Hill braces for a clash with the White House over sanctions on Iran.Boehner told reporters that he did not consult the White House before extending the invitation, adding “I do not believe I am poking anyone in the eye.”
Well, whether the Speaker believes it or not, this was quite a provocative move, which is arguably without precedent.
By delivering remarks to the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu will get a political boost at an opportune time – the prime minister will speak on Feb. 11, with Israeli elections to follow just five weeks later. The move may give the appearance of interfering in a foreign democratic election.
More importantly, Netanyahu will not be stopping by Capitol Hill for a friendly chat. Congressional Republicans, and a few Democrats, hope to sabotage international nuclear talks with Iran by imposing new sanctions on Tehran, destroying the once-in-a-generation diplomatic opportunity. These American critics of the talks see the conservative Israeli leader as an ally towards their goal, so his Washington visit is likely to be part of the broader lobbying effort.
This isn’t exactly welcome news at the White House, which was not notified of the invitation to Netanyahu before Republican leaders extended it.
Russell Berman noted, “It’s not hard to predict what Netanyahu will say to Congress next month; he’s been warning against a nuclear agreement with Iran from the moment the Obama administration entered into negotiations. The big question might whether he can rally enough support in Congress to give Republicans a veto-proof majority that would ensure the passage of a sanctions bill Obama doesn’t want. Boehner insisted on Wednesday morning that he wasn’t ‘poking anyone in the eye’ with his invitation to Netanyahu. But that’s sure not how it looks.”
Guy Ziv, a professor at American University who has studied U.S.-Israeli relations, added in an interview with TPM, “It’s unprecedented. It’s hitting below the belt. It’s taking partisanship to a whole new level.”
We’re accustomed to Republicans pushing often-ridiculous lines on foreign policy, but in general, at least over the last six years, those lines have been inconsequential – Lindsey Graham and John McCain can complain all they want on the Sunday shows every seven days, but the impact on real-world events is limited. What’s remarkable about this new Republican/Netanyahu partnership is that GOP lawmakers, regardless of how confused or misguided they may be, will be in a position to do real harm on a global scale – destroying months of historic talks, isolating the United States from our European allies at a sensitive time, and possibly increasing the threat of a nuclear Iran.
The next move will be House and Senate bills to sabotage the international talks, which will have more than enough votes to pass both chambers. Whether they can garner enough votes to override President Obama’s veto is another question entirely.