Netanyahu Congress Speech Targets Iran Deal, Israeli Voters

Updated on

When Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress on Tuesday, the Israel prime minister will call for a halt to President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, a step viewed by some as a bold act of principle and others as crude electioneering.

Since accepting Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation in January, Netanyahu has clashed repeatedly with Obama, who said he wouldn’t be welcome at the White House during the trip. The 65-year-old leader refused appeals from Democrats to cancel the speech, saying the threat to Israel from a nuclear Iran is so great, he can’t be bound by ordinary protocol.

Even some frequent supporters disagree, arguing that he is endangering the state’s main alliance.

“No matter how Churchillian Netanyahu may be when he speaks, no matter how powerful his words, he misunderstands the dynamics in Washington,” said Gil Troy, an American-Israeli historian and commentator. “With each added insult, we’re going from the usual spat to a really serious and game-changing challenge.”

Shared Goal

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday attempted to ratchet down tensions, saying on ABC’s “This Week” program that Netanyahu was always welcome to speak in the U.S. and the allies share the goal of barring an Iranian nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s appeal will also be addressed to Israelis, who will vote March 17 whether to give him a fourth term. Polls show the premier neck-and-neck with opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who has blasted him on the campaign trail for fumbling Israel’s critical alliance with the U.S.

Erel Margalit, a member of the opposition Labor party in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, said it was wrong for Netanyahu to give a speech to Congress that may inflame partisan tensions in the U.S. and Israel.

“This is what I’m critical of my prime minister, that the question became about his speech rather than about the security issues of Iran,” Margalit said in an interview on Sunday while attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington.

While Labor opposes a nuclear-armed Iran, he said, “We want to go about the debates, the discussion, the dialogue with the U.S. administration in a totally different way.”

‘Western Showdown’

“We think that talking to the champion that is leading the discussions, like the U.S. president, even if we disagree, is critical, not challenging him like in a Western showdown,” Margalit said.

Israel’s Central Elections Commission, concerned that Netanyahu could use his speech as a blatant campaign tactic, said it would be broadcast domestically with a 5-minute delay to remove statements deemed overtly partisan. Pollsters say it is unclear whether the speech is helping or hurting Netanyahu’s Likud party.

In the course of 48 hours in Washington, the Israeli leader will also recruit support at the AIPAC conference.

The sour relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, which predates the current disagreement, hasn’t interfered with commercial and security cooperation between the two countries.

The U.S. remains Israel’s biggest trading partner and closest defense ally, providing $3.1 billion in annual military assistance. In business, trade between the nations has grown to $38.1 billion in 2014 from $28.3 billion in 2009, Obama’s first year in office, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Rejected Criticism

Netanyahu’s blunt challenge to Obama comes at a delicate time for both. Obama has lost Congress to Republicans who hope to use the next two years to reverse his accomplishments and lay the groundwork for a presidential win in 2016. Their invitation to Netanyahu is part of that effort.

Boehner rejected criticism by Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who said Netanyahu’s public confrontation with the president over Iran was damaging the U.S.-Israel relationship. Rice is also due to speak at the AIPAC meeting.

“What is destructive in my view is making a bad deal that paves the way for a nuclear Iran,” Boehner said at a Feb. 26 news conference. “That’s destructive, and that’s why it’s so important for the American people to hear what Prime Minister Netanyahu has to say about the grave threats that we are facing.”

While Netanyahu’s speech is mired in politics, it also represents the most fundamental policy difference between the two countries in decades. There has long been tension over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as well as over American arms sales and relations with Arab countries. But the gap over Iran is of a different order of magnitude.

Longtime Argument

Netanyahu has argued for years that no development would threaten Israel as much as an Iranian nuclear weapon. Such a weapon, he says, would immunize Iran against military action and could be passed to Iranian-backed anti-Israel forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The deal being offered the Iranians will force a delay, he says, not an end to their nuclear program.

Obama counters that he agrees about the danger of an Iran with nuclear weapons, and that the accord he’s seeking to reach with Iran will prevent that and work toward luring the Islamic Republic back into the family of nations by slowly reducing sanctions.

In Iran, top officials including the conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have publicly supported a deal.

Easy Choice

Netanyahu’s clash with Obama has caused a backlash in Washington that undermines the Israeli leader’s objective of influencing Congress, said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security in the U.S. capital.

“The people he really needs to target are the Democrats, specifically the fence-sitters on the Democratic side, and they now feel as though they have been put in a position where they have to decide between the Israeli prime minister and the president of the United States,” said Goldenberg, a former Senate staff member and State Department official. “As much as they are strong supporters of Israel, it’s not a very difficult choice for them -- they’re going to choose the president.”

Republican Benefit

Republicans hope to benefit from the tension. Jeb Bush, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, told the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom in an interview published Friday that Netanyahu should be heard because he is right and the White House wrong on the Iran deal.

“It’s an issue of national security and not political debates,” Margalit said on Sunday. “It should not be an issue that divides Democrats or Republicans. It should not be an issue that divides Likud or Labor.”

Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress may spring not only from a deep concern about Iran but also a belief that public speaking is one of his strengths. He first came to American attention as a diplomat in the 1980s and appeared frequently on television making Israel’s case, especially during the first Gulf War.

Among Netanyahu’s preparations for this trip was visiting the grave of his father Benzion, a historian who infused his son with concerns about the dangers facing the Jewish people.

Posting on his campaign’s Facebook page, Netanyahu said: “I will continue to follow his path. I will go to the U.S. to make Israel’s position heard on the developing nuclear agreement with Iran, an agreement that will provide Iran with nuclear arms.”