Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Fashla - הפשלה

Today I'd like to start with a bit of Hebrew slang. Like much Hebrew slang, the etymology of the term under consideration comes from Arabic. I'm talking about the slang word fashla, which I best translate as "a complete disaster" or "an unanticipated (and probably predictable) fuck-up." It comes from the Arabic verb fashala, "to lose courage, to become cowardly, to despair, to fail, to become unsuccessful."

You are fortunate enough to be living in an age in which you can witness a perfectly executed Israeli fashla.

Sometime before the State of the Union speech, when President Obama declared he would veto any bill that proposed tougher sanctions on Iran, House Speaker John Boehner was approached with an idea - some published reports argue it was casino mogul and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson who presented the idea - invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress. Netanyahu would lay out the threat of "radical Islam" to the civilized world, and would specifically address the menacing nuclear threat of a fanatic and viciously anti-Semitic Shi'ite theocracy.

Boehner liked the idea. He contacted the Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer. Ron Dermer is known, Karl Rove-like, to be "Bibi's brains." He has been a close political confidant and speechwriter for Netanyahu since 2008 until his appointment to the plum ambassadorship of Israel's closest ally in 2013. Before immigrating to Israel in 1997 he had worked for a time with Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. If either Dermer or Netanyahu had stayed in America, they would today be Republicans in heart and soul. Boehner knew he'd find a sympathetic ear and direct access to the Boss.

The three together planned a stunning Republican congressional protest, all within Constitutional bounds, against a threatened Presidential veto of a bipartisan call for more stringent sanctions on Iran. Bibi Netanyahu was a master of the Speaker's rostrum. Back in 2011 Boehner, then in grudging cooperation with the White House, had extended a similar invitation to Netanyahu, and Bibi was treated to energetic support from those seated in the House chamber. In fact, this would be the third time Bibi addressed Congress, an honor granted only Winston Churchill, one of Netanyahu's heroes.

For Netanyahu, the added benefit of appearing on domestic wall-to-wall media coverage of his "historic mission" to Washington just 2 weeks before an Israeli election was irresistible. Bibi has portrayed his principal political adversary Yizhak (Buji) Herzog as a weak-on-security neophyte and a bumbling amateur. On the other hand, Netanyahu imagines himself a cunningly wise leader, the absolutely right man for these dangerous times.

For creating a fashla, this was a perfect storm.

The too clever by half masterstroke, once it was finally revealed to the unsuspecting White House and the Democratic leadership less than 48 hours after the State of the Union speech, quickly turned into a classic fashla. No amount of spin or fudging the facts of the invitation would turn it around. Within a week of the announcement, bipartisan support for tougher sanctions against Iran - the very mission which Netanyahu had intended to reinforce - crumbled apart. Democrats had to choose between their President and the Prime Minister of Israel. It was an easy call.

Two weeks after the announcement, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was hinting at a wholesale defection of dozens of Democratic congressman from the audience. Vice President Joe Biden, who has missed only one joint session designed to host an invited foreign leader, announced suddenly he would be out of town that day. The image of a half-filled chamber, with Republican Senator and President pro tempore Orrin Hatch sitting in the left chair, will not make for a rousing moment reminiscent of Bibi's prior appearances.

In classic fashla fashion, the masterstroke has completely backfired. Iran has disappeared from the discussion, and instead the only discussion is the worsening relations between Netanyahu, Obama, the Democrats, and even American Jews, who view the entire matter with growing concern.

So there you go - a first-class, high-drama fashla.

And thus concludes today's lesson in Israeli slang.