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Finley: Bibi's visit may hurt Israel

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The last shred of true bipartisanship in Washington is the commitment of both congressional Republicans and Democrats to the well-being of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu, in scheduling an ill-conceived speech before Congress without getting sign-off from the White House, risks sacrificing even that special relationship to this nation's poisonous political climate.

The Israeli prime minister is coming to Congress on March 17 at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who is clearly motivated by the desire to stick a thumb in the eye of President Barack Obama.

The White House calls it a break in protocol and sees it as undermining the ongoing negotiations to contain Iran's nuclear capability. And some Democratic congressional leaders are now weighing a boycott of the speech.

Forcing Democrats to choose between Netanyahu and their own president risks splitting the pro-Israel forces in Congress; Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York are among the Jewish state's most vocal backers. The prime minister is placing Schumer and others in a terrible position.

In doing so, Netanyahu may hurt his own cause and country. Despite pressure from Obama's Democrats, lawmakers from both parties have been firm in their support of a bill that will impose harsh sanctions on Iran if the talks break down.

It is a rational measure, and would give the United States a hammer in the talks. But Obama is terrified that showing any firmness will cause the Iranians to walk away.

The president's weak bargaining stance is what has Netanyahu so desperate he's willing to risk this unprecedented public defiance of an American president. Deference has always been the price Israel has paid for U.S. protection. But Netanyahu has no trust in Obama's ability to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

The prime minister fears Obama is willing to give away too much of Israel's security in the name of reaching a deal that will seal his own legacy. And while the administration accuses Netanyahu, who is campaigning for reelection, of playing politics, he understands what Obama doesn't: If Iran is allowed to maintain the ability to make a nuclear weapon, it will, and will use it on Israel.

Obama appears ready to accept a bargain that will keep Iran one-year away from bomb creation capability. The Israelis rightly fear the break-out window is so narrow that detection of violations will come too late to act. They also can't be sure the United States, under Obama's leadership, will take preventative steps even if Iran does break the deal.

Americans need to hear that. But the message will be drowned out by the political fighting the visit will trigger.

Given the dominant role the speech is playing in the Israeli election, Netanyuhu is not likely to cancel. But he and Boehner could agree to close the joint session, sparing Netanyahu's Democratic friends from the optics of betraying Obama.

Go ahead and blame this on Boehner; he deserves it. But at its root is the foriegn policy bungling of a president who can't tell America's friends from its enemies.