It’s no exaggeration to say that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed his country’s survival was at stake in 1940 and 1941, as isolationists in the U.S. Congress fought Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to prepare America for its eventual entry into World War II.
In early 1941, as the Battle of Britain was raging, with Nazi planes bombing British cities every night, opponents in the Senate tried to block FDR’s “lend-lease” program to provide England with desperately needed military supplies. And yet Churchill never publicly intervened in the American debate (which ultimately led Congress to approve the aid).
As Susan Dunn, author of the engaging recent book 1940 points out, Churchill did not address Congress until late December 1941, after the U.S. had entered the war and allied with Britain. Churchill probably best illuminated his reasoning in a letter to FDR, in which he explained why he had chosen to also stay silent during the president’s successful 1940 reelection campaign. “I did not think it was right for me as a Foreigner to express any opinion upon American policies while the Election was on,” Churchill wrote.
That sentiment is a reminder of how greatly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is departing from historic norms in his continued determination to directly interject himself into American political disputes—most recently by accepting an invitation from Republicans to address a congressional joint session about Iran in March. Foreign governments of all perspectives, at all times in our history, have worked to build support inside the United States for their priorities. (The British did it too in the years before World War II.) But the high-profile personal intervention into U.S. politics that Netanyahu has repeatedly practiced remains almost unprecedented. “It’s very uncommon,” says diplomatic historian Robert Dallek. “Usually foreign leaders are very cautious. They want to have an influence … but they understand they can’t become clearly involved in partisan politics in the United States.”
Israel has probably worked harder than any other foreign nation to influence contemporary American debates. But even by the standards of that intimate relationship, no previous prime minister has aligned with any U.S. political faction as closely as Netanyahu has with the Republican Party, says Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, who previously advised six secretaries of State, Republicans and Democrats, about the Mideast. “There is nothing that even comes close,” Miller says.
Netanyahu’s partnership with the American Right extends back to his first stint as prime minister in 1996, when he commissioned a study by a group of U.S. neoconservatives that urged both “a clean break” from the Palestinian peace process and an effort to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. During the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, Netanyahu, by then restored as prime minister after years of exile, warmly welcomed Republican nominee Mitt Romney on a visit to Israel. Even more pointedly, Netanyahu held a press conference that September denouncing President Obama’s approach to constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Now, Netanyahu, without alerting the White House, has accepted an invitation to speak to Congress, extended by congressional Republicans pushing legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran. Obama insists that such sanctions (which some congressional Democrats also support) would doom the ongoing international negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
As Miller notes, the United States is not operating with entirely clean hands on the question of electoral meddling. Just before the 1996 vote that first elected Netanyahu, Bill Clinton hosted then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres at a White House terrorism summit that seemed designed to bolster the Labor Party leader. Clinton also lavishly praised Ehud Barak, another Labor prime minister, in an Israeli TV interview soon before the 2001 election there (although those comments came just after Clinton had left office).
Both of Clinton’s preferred Israeli candidates lost, and Netanyahu’s intervention here could prove equally counterproductive. The prime minister’s choice, Miller notes, may have been inevitable, given his rocky relationship with Obama and the stakes for Israel in the Iranian negotiations. But if Netanyahu’s goal is to undermine the talks by creating a veto-proof congressional majority for new Iran sanctions, his visit could backfire. His unusual involvement “will make it harder for Democrats” to side with Republicans against Obama, says Miller. Tellingly, Sen. Dianne Feinstein issued a blistering statement in which she described Netanyahu’s speech as “a breach of protocol” and the proposed sanctions as a “reckless and dangerous” maneuver that would “ruin a historic diplomatic opportunity.” Other Senate Democrats this week said they would give diplomacy more time before backing sanctions.
In the complex geometry of Israeli politics, this latest confrontation with Obama could help Netanyahu solidify conservative support in the March 17 Israeli election that will pit his Likud Party against a center-left alliance. But it has also allowed critics in Israel to accuse him of endangering the vital U.S. relationship. Even the pugnacious Netanyahu might not be risking a move this provocative if he felt confident about the political current—in either country.