Right now, liberals and Democrats are apoplectic that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, is preparing to address the United States Congress in a few weeks, shortly before his own make-or-break election in Israel. The Dems’ problem is that the speech was arranged by Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner, without any consultation with President Obama. Edward-Isaac Dovere at Politico has a pretty good summary of where we are: Dianne Feinstein said any such speech “violates all the protocol that has ever existed,” and Nancy Pelosi said that “casting a political apple of discord into the relationship is not the best way forward given the formidable challenges our two countries are facing together.” Despite Israeli ambassadors’ best efforts, many Democrats have publicly announced that they will skip Bibi’s speech.
And yet something about the Democrats’ latest statements has me wondering: are they setting themselves up for hypocrisy later this year?
You can tell when the Dems think they’ve got a winning issue: the fundraising emails go out, the spokesmen appear on the Sunday talk shows. For most of this century, regarding Israeli-American relations, Democrats have been operating in a crouch: Republicans demand ever more strident support of Israel’s Likud party’s goals, and the Democrats look like appeasers, or something other than “friends of Israel,” if they don’t go along. Probably Boehner thought that a Netanyahu speech to Congress would be one more “wedge” he could drive between some Democrats. So it’s probably a slight relief for them that in the latest incident, polls indicate that Americans don’t like foreign leaders going around the President’s back. Dems sense a place where they can take a stand against the relentless war march of Likud, and perhaps throw a bit of support to Israel’s embattled Labour party, maybe even show a glimmer of support for peaceful Palestinians. They want Obama’s potential deal with Iran on nukes, and they don’t want Bibi to take that away.
My unsolicited advice to the Dems is: be very careful on those emails and talk shows. Stick very close to the issue of a foreign leader going around the President, because like our Israeli friends, you’re in a bit of a foxhole, and if you move one inch the wrong way, prepare for bullets and land mines.
What do I mean? Well, it wouldn’t take much for the White House and Democrat-approved statements to metastasize into something more generally disapproving of the idea of any foreign leader coming to America and suggesting policy changes. In the case of Netanyahu, there’s also the risk of conflation with religion – as though to repudiate the Prime Minister would somehow (through Republican rhetorical slight-of-hand) repudiate Judaism.
This matters because the Democrats should be thinking three moves ahead: Pope Francis I is making his first papal visit to America later this year, and he will be as welcomed by Obama and Democrats as Netanyahu is welcomed by Republicans. As you may have heard, Vatican City’s current leader is rather popular, not least among Democrats who have been looking for ways to appeal to the many Catholics they’ve lost since John F. Kennedy was President. On gays in the Church, Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?” On contraception, he said there was no need for Catholics to be “like rabbits.” On climate change, he said, “For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature.” On capitalism, he said poverty needed to be “radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality.” And don’t get him started on gun control or the death penalty. All of this makes him catnip for Democrats and Kryptonite for Republicans, particularly when you consider the importance of Latino (Catholic) voters, and you can be sure that when Pope Frankie arrives, the Democrats will treat him the way crowds of San Franciscans treated Batkid.
The problem is that Fox News and right-wing radio are already preparing their talking points: one standard for one leader of a religion-based country, another standard for a different one. I know, I know: the President meets with all world leaders, and Netanyahu’s mistake was short-circuiting that process. I know, but that’s not how it’s going to play in the right-wing blogosphere. Talking point 1: Francis and Barack colluded to exclude Congress and subvert a half-century of policy of containment of Cuba, giving Fidel Castro a big home victory. Talking point 2: Obama would have you believe that Netanyahu should have simply come to him first, but the truth is Obama turns his back on our oldest allies – not only Israel, but also France during the march to support free speech – only to leap into the arms of a 2-year-old papacy because he likes its anti-armed forces, anti-capitalist rhetoric. Talking point 3: the Pope’s visit has made clear that Obama isn’t against foreign influence over Washington, just Israel’s influence.
Yes, I know we’re a long way from the days when John Kennedy was accused of secret collusion with Papist dogma. (Republican statements that insinuated as much in 1960 would never be spoken today; by the party’s current standards, they’d be considered dangerously secular.) Yes, I realize that elected Republicans will have to walk a fine line during Pope Francis’s visit, since they don’t want to lose those Latino Catholic votes. But that won’t matter, since the Fox News/Limbaugh/Drudge/Breitbart-osphere will do all the talking for them. The point is that Democrats shouldn’t do anything now that will reek of hypocrisy later this year. It’s fine to object to a Netanyahu-Boehner side deal, but be very careful to surround that objection with florid statements of support for Israel. Boehner’s “wedging” instincts regarding a Netanyahu speech to Congress weren’t entirely wrong, and Democrats have their own fine line to walk.
Of course, all of this triangulation just emphasizes the ongoing need for a truly powerful third party (as Israel has in its own Knesset), hopefully a Populist party that could give equal weight to Popes and Prime Ministers. But that’s a topic for another post.