On Thursday, the Obama administration put out the word that neither President Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden nor Secretary of State John Kerry would meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits Washington in March. It is an unprecedented snub, provoked by Netanyahu’s far-from-unprecedented effort to thwart a key US policy in the Middle East: achievement of a nuclear deal with Iran.
The story began just hours after Obama’s State of the Union speech. In outlining his foreign policy goals, Obama expressed the importance of reaching an agreement with Iran and said that he would oppose efforts by Congress to get in the way:
There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed…. But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails…. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.
This was not the first time that Obama had pledged to veto new Iran sanctions. But it was the first time he addressed that threat to a Congress in which both chambers are controlled by Republicans, a clear majority of whom oppose negotiations with Iran and who, combined with Democrats aligned with the Israel lobby, come close to constituting the two-thirds supermajority necessary to overturn a presidential veto.
The veto threat was less directed at them than it was at those Democrats. Obama needs them to understand that he will not give them a pass on the issue merely because they are under pressure from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Israeli embassy. This was the same message he gave to senators earlier in January, before his State of the Union speech, when, according to The New York Times, he said that he understood the pressure from donors but that the senators should take a broader view. (The same Times report says that Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, leading Democratic sponsor of new sanctions, responded by telling Obama he took “personal offense” at the suggestion that his motives were anything but pure.)
Less than twenty-four hours after Tuesday’s speech, the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, issued a statement pledging to intensify the fight for new sanctions: “[Obama’s] exact message to us was: ‘Hold your fire.’ He expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran. Two words: ‘Hell no!’” the House speaker said during his weekly press briefing on Wednesday. “We’re going to do no such thing.”