By Moshe Phillips and Benyamin Korn
Who misled President Obama into his losing showdown over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s blockbuster speech to Congress?
And how much of this week’s setback to the President should be blamed on the “progressive” Israel lobbying group J Street?
When J Street was established, its leaders chose a football metaphor to describe their purpose: they said they would serve as “President Obama’s blocking back.” In other words, they would charge into the defensive line, pushing aside critics so that Obama would be able to dictate terms to Israel. But as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress demonstrates, J Street has instead misled the president-and the White House should draw a lesson from the experience.
J Street officials make no secret of their access to the White House. There can be no doubt that when the president and his aides were considering how to respond to John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress, they consulted the J Streeters. And this is where the bad advice began.
Clearly, President Obama came to the conclusion that sufficient pressure on Netanyahu would cause the Israeli leader to cave, and to cancel his speech. It defies logic to think that the president would have forged ahead with such a nasty anti-Netanyahu campaign if he thought the effort was likely to fail. He would not want to risk all the damage to his relationship with American Jewish voters, not to mention the millions of others of Israel supporters, if he didn’t feel sure he was going to win. He would not want to risk turning the speech into a much bigger deal than it would otherwise have been.
It is not hard to imagine the arguments that J Street’s leaders must have made to White House officials. “We know Bibi-he always caves into pressure” …”We’re Jews-we understand the American Jewish community” … “Some of us have lived in Israel-we know how the Israeli psyche works” … “Netanyahu has given in before -he froze settlements, he said he would accept some version of a Palestinian state-he’ll give in again.”
And so began a carefully calibrated campaign of gradually ratcheting up the pressure on Israel’s prime minister.
First, accusations that Netanyahu had “insulted” the president and “breached protocol.” Neither of those claims were true, but pretending to be a victim is often a useful tactic.
Then, a flurry of attacks on Israel’s ambassador in Washington, featuring brutish comments from prominent current or former State Department officials who happen to be Jewish, such as Daniel Kurtzer and Martin Indyk.
Next: comments from Democrat congressional leaders, such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, hinting that they might boycott the speech. In the end, neither Reid nor Pelosi did boycott, but their early comments sowed seeds of tension.
When these attacks didn’t seem to gain traction, the assault intensified. They trotted out National Security Adviser Susan Rice to accuse Netanyahu of “destroying” American-Israeli relations.
But Rice’s over-the-top remarks didn’t resonate, either. So they began rounding up minor Democratic congressmen to pledge they would boycott Israel’s prime minister. Although each new addition to the list generated a headline or two, in the end, the boycott was a complete flop, and more than 90% of senators, and more than 90% of House members, attended.
J Street tried one last, desperate gambit: they invested large sums of money in a series of television ads that claimed Prime Minister Netanyahu would use footage of his speech in Israeli election campaign commercials. It was a curious coincidence that simultaneously with the airing of the ads, a Minnesota congressmember, Betty McCollumm, made the exact same argument-and so did a Kentucky congressman, John Yarmuth, in his remarks on Fox TV after the speech. It sounded as if they were all reading from the same page of talking points.
Most telling, perhaps, was the fact that the ads continued to air on television throughout the afternoon after the speech. In other words, J Street was so obsessed, so filled with loathing for Israel’s leader, that they did not even have the good taste or common sense to stop the ads once the speech had taken place.
So in the end it was precisely this passion, this pathological loathing for Netanyahu, that caused J Street to so badly mislead the president, to convince him that Netanyahu would collapse or that a large part of Congressmembers would stay away. In the end, Netanyahu did not bend, and the White House could not get even more than a small minority of its own base -the Democrats in Congress- to boycott. That’s because, despite its best efforts, J Street cannot change the fact that an overwhelming number of members of Congress, and most of the American public, Jews and Christians alike, strongly support Israel and its democratically-elected leaders. That is an obstacle that J Street failed to help Obama to overcome.
The Netanyahu speech was a huge victory for Israel and its friends, and a stinging loss for the Obama administration and J Street. If the administration is wise, it will think twice before again letting J Street lead it down the road of defeat and embarrassment.
Moshe Phillips is president and Benyamin Korn is chairman of the Religious Zionists of America, Philadelphia, and both are candidates on the Religious Zionist slate (www.VoteTorah.org) in the World Zionist Congress elections.