Last Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress next month, without consulting the White House. In fact, the White House apparently found out on Wednesday morning, right before the announcement. Courtesy dictates that you tell someone when you are coming over for a visit, and that rule generally holds true for world leaders. As a New York Times editorial points out: Not only is this an attempt by the GOP to pressure President Obama to approve sanctions against Iran, it is also a blatant show of disrespect. Boehner said he does not believe he is “poking anyone in the eye.” That’s right: He’s slapping the White House in the face.
But why invite Netanyahu? Republicans have had no issue expressing their discontent with the president, as this week’s latest rounds of Benghazi hearings indicate. However, after a State of the Union address that pushed President Obama’s favorability ratings up to 50 percent and the relative success of Obamacare, the GOP finds itself in need not just of a new cause to rally behind, but a new way to antagonize President Obama. And Israel provides the perfect solution. While the GOP has had to grasp at straws to criticize other aspects of Obama’s presidency, President Obama’s relationship with Israel is more vulnerable to attack.
The Obama administration has been more critical of Israel than any other in recent history (though considering the absolute, unwavering support of previous administrations, that is not saying much). In the past few months this has become clearer, as tension between the White House and Prime Minister Netanyahu has escalated. From the White House’s description of Israel’s shelling of a UN school this summer as “disgraceful” to a White House official calling Netanyahu “chickenshit,” it seems that America’s “unique relationship” with Israel is not as strong as it once was. And while Americans have become apathetic in the seemingly endless and increasingly pointless Benghazi debate, they still care quite a bit about Israel.
Even with the violence in Gaza this past summer, Israel’s approval rating among the American public is higher than Congress’ has been at any point in the last half-century (barring the two months after 9/11). As of 2013, Gallup had 64 percent of Americans sympathizing with Israel more than with the Palestinians. Even more important, during the conflict in Gaza this summer, almost four times as many Americans supported Israel as supported Hamas. This suggests that, even in the face of negative press coverage and widespread European criticism, American support for Israel is unlikely to waver any time soon. Furthermore, three in four Americans view Iranian nuclear development as a critical threat. Netanyahu is currently one of the most vocal opponents of Iranian nuclear development, having called 2013’s nuclear deal a “historic mistake.” The prevalence of these views makes a pro-Israel position the only politically safe stance to take.
By inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress without consulting the White House, Boehner is showing the President that the GOP is going to follow its own foreign policy agenda. He is also sending two messages to the American public: The first is that the GOP has the standing and the right to extend invitations to foreign heads of state without the permission of the President. The second is that the GOP not only cares about Israel, but hears its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program — both sentiments that resonate with the American people. However, the real takeaway from Boehner’s Bibi gambit is that trumpeting support for Israel is an opportunity for the struggling GOP to secure cheap political gains.
Elizabeth Margolin, a sophomore studying public policy, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.