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Last year, in the midst of a tense, partisan battle over the Iran deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted then-Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress without consulting the President. J Street and much of the organized American Jewish community saw the move as ill-conceived, and likely to needlessly exacerbate an already challenging political moment.
Netanyahu came, gave his speech panning the Iran deal, infuriated many Democrats and went back to Israel. Ultimately, the deal cleared Congress, was implemented and has successfully blocked the Iran’s pathways to building a nuclear weapon.
However, one of Netanyahu’s staunch defenders, Alan Dershowitz, recently decided to try and use President Obama’s recent visit to the United Kingdom to charge him with “hypocrisy” over his reaction to Netanyahu’s speech.
President Obama visited the UK last week in part to clarify his position on the “Brexit” — an upcoming referendum that will determine whether the United Kingdom stays in the European Union. Obama favors the UK remaining part of the EU, and made his case in an op-ed in the Telegraph and a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron (who also opposes a British exit from the EU).
Dershowitz wrote a piece juxtaposing Obama’s public opposition to Brexit with his opposition to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, alleging that the President was being inconsistent. How could Obama be so frustrated with Netanyahu for public disagreeing with him when he had no problem doing the same with pro-Brexiters in the UK?
How flawed is this analogy? Let us count the ways.
First, it is built on the straw-man that Obama’s gripe with Netanyahu was public disagreement over the Iran deal and “meddling in American politics.” That’s wrong. Netanyahu made his feelings about the Iran deal abundantly clear in a variety of fora long before (and long after) news of his address to Congress broke. While the President and significant portions of the American security establishment disagreed with Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal, no one was bothered by Netanyahu expressing an opinion. Only when he accepted an invitation to speak behind the President’s back at the behest of the opposition party did he generate a public outcry.
Obama has long made clear that public disagreements between allies are part of a functional relationship between the United States and the world — a sentiment he upheld in the face of unrelenting criticism of his leadership from Netanyahu. Instead, Dershowitz opted to conflate Netanyahu’s address to Congress with “criticism of the United States,” completely ignoring the President’s embrace of a robust debate over the Iran deal in the United States.
Then there are the details surrounding the Netanyahu speech. For example, Obama went to the United Kingdom at Cameron’s invitation, whereas Netanyahu accepted an invitation to come to Congress without Obama’s knowledge. Dershowitz claims that Cameron’s invitation is irrelevant because of the different British and American systems of government, which belies his lack of appreciation for the important details surrounding Netanyahu’s visit. Dershowitz does not mention that the speech helped drive a partisan wedge through the Iran debate. He does not mention American concerns about the speech being used to affect the outcome of the upcoming Israeli election. These were obviously not factors in Obama’s visit to the UK.
Dershowitz closes by insisting that open dialogue among friends is the best way to go forward. Obama agrees now, and agreed during the Iran debate. While Dershowitz is free to bring up points of contention between himself and the President, he should first ensure there’s an actual disagreement.
Benjy Cannon is the 2015-2016 Mikva Fellow at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @benjycannon