Articles

How The White House Botched Bibi’s Speech

March 04, 2015

Put aside the policy implications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s powerful speech to Congress on Tuesday, and the dire consequences if President Obama bungles his dealings with Iran. 

Instead, consider how badly the Obama administration has handled things during the six weeks since Jan. 21, when House Speaker John Boehner invited Mr. Netanyahu to address Congress. Mr. Obama and his team pride themselves on their communications prowess, but they’ve made a hash of the situation.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest delivered the initial response, suggesting a protocol violation and implying Mr. Netanyahu needed Mr. Obama’s permission to come to the U.S. The administration was clearly piqued. That soon gave way to anger—and a series of steps to escalate the confrontation with our most stalwart ally. 

Within days, the White House announced the president would not meet with the Israeli prime minister. Within a week, an unnamed senior official expressed “outrage” to the New York Times, saying the White House was “angry” at Mr. Netanyahu. The Times found this “unusually sharp criticism.” 

In early February, Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not attend the speech and the administration reportedly encouraged congressional Democrats to boycott it. Eventually nearly 60 Democratic congressmen and senators refused to attend the speech. 

Even that wasn’t the end of it. The White House then orchestrated a three-day assault. On Feb. 23 Senate Democrats demanded a private meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, saying his visit “sacrifices deep and well-established cooperation on Israel” and warning of “lasting repercussions” if he refused their invitation to visit their woodshed.

In an interview on “Charlie Rose” the next day, National Security Adviser Susan Rice declared the prime minister’s appearance was “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the U.S. and Israel. 

And in congressional testimony the following day, Secretary of State John Kerry questioned Mr. Netanyahu’s judgment for having supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying, “We all know what happened with that decision.” Mr. Kerry neglected to mention that as a U.S. senator in 2003 he voted for the war.

What the Obama administration succeeded in doing with its unceasing assault on Mr. Netanyahu was to make his speech much more significant and the setting much more dramatic than otherwise. They took an important address and turned it into a must-see event. With the stage set, the Israeli prime minister, after beginning his address with generous praise about the president’s past support of Israel, proceeded to demolish Mr. Obama’s arguments one by one. It was a devastating takedown. 

It was obvious in advance how the White House should have handled Mr. Netanyahu. Rather than bashing him, they should have played down his appearance. Rather than incite the party’s congressional hotheads to say stupid things, the White House should have publicly discouraged a boycott by congressional Democrats. Rather than snubbing Mr. Netanyahu by fleeing the country in a graceless and petty act, Mr. Biden should have occupied his seat and applauded occasionally. 

There should have been administration officials in the House chamber, even if Mr. Kerry had negotiations in Geneva to attend to. Mr. Obama’s refusal to even send the U.S. ambassador to Israel to Mr. Netanyahu’s address was small-minded. So was his refusal to see the prime minister while he was in Washington. Instead, Mr. Obama pointedly scheduled a meeting with congressional Democrats on trade issues to coincide with Mr. Netanyahu’s Capitol Hill appearance. 

Mr. Kerry’s attempts last weekend to assure everyone that “the administration is not seeking to politicize this” was an admission the White House had screwed up, but it was too late. 

A president who came into office promising to repair relations with our friends has made them worse—and not just with Israel but with our Arab allies, all of whom are fearful of a nuclear Iran. The administration has said and done things it cannot take back and that have united Israel and key Arab nations—against us. 

It is interesting that Mr. Obama’s antipathy has recently been focused not on the planet’s most evil regimes, including Iran, but on America’s most dependable ally, Israel, a vibrant nation that is a champion of liberty and human rights and a beacon of freedom in a sea of oppression. 

The president’s behavior has provided ample additional evidence that he lacks the skills and patience to deal with allies with whom he disagrees. He and his team of public-relations geniuses couldn’t have bungled this affair worse had they tried.

A version of this article appeared March 5, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline How The White House Botched Bibi’s Speech and online at WSJ.com.

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