The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
When John Boehner announced that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had accepted his invitation to address Congress, the Obama Administration reacted strongly. The criticism was not directed primarily at Boehner, who apparently did not inform the White House of the invitation until shortly before it was formally delivered, and may have acted unconstitutionally in delivering it, but against Netanyahu, for breaching diplomatic protocol by accepting the invitation from Boehner without prior coordination with the Administration.
For example, AP reported that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest "says typical protocol is that a country's leader would contact the White House before planning to visit the United States. But Earnest says they didn't hear about Boehner's invitation until Wednesday morning, shortly before the speaker announced it publicly." State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki was a bit more circumspect, stating that "traditionally we would learn about plans of leaders…separately from…the Speaker," i.e., one assumes, from the leader or his representative.
Even friends of Israel, like the Post's Richard Cohen, were appalled. Cohen excoriated Netanyahu for accepting the Boehner's invitation "without informing the White House," a sign of Netanyahu's "impetuousness and contempt" for President Obama.
The story of Netanyahu's perfidy grew to the extent that the New York Times reported, incorrectly, that Netanyahu accepted the invitation before the White House had been informed of it. The Times then issue the following correction. "An earlier version of this article misstated when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel accepted Speaker John A. Boehner's invitation to address Congress. He accepted after the administration had been informed of the invitation, not before."
This correction has circulated in conservative and pro-Israel circles, but doesn't seem to have led to any followup, or any investigation by those who initially reported the opposite. Were senior White House aides exaggerating the story, or did the Times get caught up in its own anti-Netanyahu narrative? Or perhaps the Times was failing to distinguish between Netanyahu's formal acceptance after the White House had been notified, and White House anger that the details of the visit had been worked out before notification to the White House, meaning that Netanyahu was planning to accept the invitation before the White House knew about it.
All this raises the issue of why the Obama Administration chose to turn this incident into a diplomatic brouhaha. On the one hand, a foreign leader planning a visit without prior coordination with the State Department is surely unusual. On the other hand, over at American Thinker, Ed Lasky notes that a visit like this is not exactly unprecedented: "In 2011, Boehner sent a notice to the WH stating his intention to invite Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress. The White House never responded (spite? incompetence?) and Boehner proceeded to extend the invitation to Netanyahu. Netanyahu accepted the invitation and spoke. The White House did not express any outrage in 2011." The invitation letter, meanwhile, said the invitation was "on behalf of the the bipartisan leadership of the US House and US Senate", suggesting that the Israelis may have been misinformed regarding the extent to which the Democratic Congressional leadership was on board (and if they were on board, surely the White House would have known about it).
When informed of Boehner's invitation, the White House publicly took a "wait and see" attitude, rather than announcing its opposition. According to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, once the White House knew about the invitation, the Israeli government (contra Cohen and others) was in contact with U.S. government officials, in both Washington and Jerusalem. It doesn't appear that the White House conveyed to Netanyahu that the president expected him to decline the invitation.
So we have two different narratives here. The Israeli narrative is that Boehner, on behalf of a bipartisan Congress (as the Israelis claim they sincerely believed), invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. Netanyahu had done so before under similar circumstances, without White House objection. The invitation had been conveyed informally to Netanyahu weeks before it was publicly announced, and the Israelis figured, based on what Boehner himself told them, that it was Boehner's job to decide when and how inform the White House that a formal invitation was pending. Once Boehner did so, Netanyahu having heard no objection from the White House beyond concern that the invitation had breached diplomatic protocol (which would seem to be primarily Boehner's sin), went ahead and accepted it.
The White House, by contrast, seems to think that Netanyahu is in league with the GOP (or in fact is, somehow, a Republican), that he tried to help defeat Obama in 2012 (apparently they believe that if Netanyahu had said the word to Sheldon Adelson, the latter wouldn't have donated millions to Romney, which seems speculative to say the least, and more likely is fanciful), and that his choice of a former Republican American, Ron Dermer, to be ambassador to the U.S., showed disrespect for the Democratic president.
In that light, the White House sees the invitation as a scheme by Dermer to go behind the president's back and arrange for Netanyahu to address Congress to embarrass the president, and undermine U.S. policy toward Iran outside of normal diplomatic channels. If nothing else, Netanyahu shouldn't have allowed the president to be put in the position of either vetoing a public invitation and risking the wrath of pro-Israel American opinion, or having to grudgingly permit the visit to go ahead. This, according to the White House, meant that Netanyahu "spat in our face publicly, and that's no way to behave."
So the notification issue that the White House has focused on is a bit of a red herring. The White House knew about the invitation before Netanyahu accepted it, and it hardly seems worthy of a major diplomatic incident that the Israelis relied on Boehner to convey the fact of the invitation. The problem, instead, seems to be that the Administration (a) believes that Boehner and Netanyahu's representatives in D.C. plotted the invitation behind the White House's back; (b) Netanyahu didn't give the White House a chance to consider whether it wanted to veto the invitation before it was made public; (c) all against a backdrop of profound mistrust, or perhaps hostility, on the part of Obama toward Netanyahu. (Let's recall that, speaking of diplomatic protocol, this president and his top advisors have not always extended diplomatic niceties to Netanyahu).
Was the White House really blindsided by all this (is it really possible that no one in the Administration had an inkling that an invitation to Netanyahu was in the works?) Or did the Administration take the opportunity to try to drive a wedge between Netanyahu and Congressional Democrats, and to try to make Netanyahu look bad before upcoming Israeli elections?
Similar questions could ask about what the Israelis were thinking in further risking ties with the Obama Administration. Was Netanyahu peeved that (according to Ha'aretz) Obama personally called him a week earlier to tell him to ratchet down the rhetoric on Iran, and therefore thought he needed to make his case directly to Congress? Was he risking diplomatic ties with the U.S. to make himself look good to the Israeli electorate before upcoming elections?
Let's hope that none of this winds up interfering with what everyone seems to agree is the ultimate goal here, which is to prevent the terrorist state of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
[Note to readers: As of 6:00 AM Monday morning, this is a significantly revised, and I think significantly improved, version of this post. The original likely read too much into the Times's correction (though this was quickly updated), and failed to convey in nearly as much detail each side's understanding of how the controversy arose.]