Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to speak before a joint session of Congress on March 3. Bibi and his supporters have framed this as a Churchillian moment; one where the world can never claim it wasn’t warned of the oncoming calamity that is a nuclear-armed Iran. They sell this address as the last best hope to save his besieged country from certain annihilation.
In reality, the speech is shortsighted political theater, which will do little for Israel’s long-term security, but stands a good chance of rupturing the once-unshakable bond between Israel and its most stalwart ally and benefactor.
House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu to speak on Capitol Hill, delivered without White House consultation or approval, has been perceived by many Democrats as a partisan insult. Some are refusing to take part in what they see as an attempt by a foreign leader to use Congress as the stage for a campaign speech, while others won’t allow themselves to be party to a GOP effort to undermine the Obama administration during a moment of delicate diplomacy.
Netanyahu insists he must deliver his address to Congress and the American people before the March 31 deadline ending nuclear negotiations between Iran, the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. The speech stands almost no chance of derailing the talks, but might aid his re-election efforts back home, where President Obama is deeply unpopular and where Israelis go to the polls on March 17.
Would Netanyahu risk his country’s single greatest foreign policy advantage, the total support of both major American political parties, for a pre-election polling bump? As I wrote at Reason.com, congressional support for Israel is one of very few issues where Democrats and Republicans march together in lockstep, including the most iconoclastic members of each party.
At a Vermont town hall meeting, Congress’s most left-wing member, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), shouted down his own constituents who were furious over mounting civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip during last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas. On the right, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) backtracked on his earlier call to cut support for Israel (and everyone else) to make the absurd assertion that he said no such thing. Paul even went to Israel and took a mud bath in the Dead Sea to prove how much he didn’t say what he said. Showing your Israeli street credibility is a bipartisan survival instinct.
Though every U.S. president since George H.W. Bush has been publicly critical of Israel’s construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank, no president or Congress has cut military aid to Israel by a single dime. Israel can always count on the United States to stand in its corner at the United Nations. When the rubber hits the road, there is simply no daylight between the governments of the U.S. and Israel.
That said, it is no secret that Netanyahu and President Obama have endured an acrimonious six-year relationship. Netanyahu infamously wagged his finger at the president in the Oval Office, an act that almost certainly would have generated GOP outrage if, say, the president of France had done it. Speaking of whom, Obama was caught on a live mic grousing with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy about how often he has to “deal with” Netanyahu. There’s no love lost between these two guys, but it hasn’t changed U.S. policy toward Israel in any appreciable way.
This speech could change that. It has already caused a minor uprising in the Democratic Party, with 23 members of Congress petitioning Boehner to postpone the speech until after Israel’s election. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) went on record saying he will not attend the speech, telling the Associated Press, “I think it’s an affront to the president and the State Department, what the speaker did.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), flailing to prevent the image of a Democratic boycott of the Israeli prime minister, unconvincingly offered that visiting foreign leaders are a distraction for members of Congress “trying to pass legislation…meeting with their constituents and the rest.” That’s ridiculous. These kinds of events are what politicians live for. A photo-op with a head of state passes for “foreign policy experience” for many undistinguished members of Congress on the re-election campaign trail. Hedging her bets once more, Pelosi said, “As of now, it is my intention to go,” but added, “It is still my hope that the event will not take place.”
Netanyahu is not wrong to consider a nuclear-armed Iran a threat. Iran has long supported Hamas and Hezbollah, two entities Israel has been in a state of war with for decades, both of which exist on or within Israel’s borders. He may very well believe that his speech is a matter of existential importance, and that only this drastic step stands between the U.S.’s appeasement of a nuclear-armed nation-state run by a suicidal death cult, whose president once openly wished for a future where Israel would be “wiped off the map.”
Which is exactly why Yair Lapid, one of Netanyahu’s former allies turned political rivals, says the speech is a mistake. Lapid told the Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu could have made his case to America “quietly, not poking the United States president in the chest,” and blamed the speech for the loss of bipartisan congressional support for a new bill of sanctions on Iran.
The agencies entrusted with Israel’s security are even more skeptical of the prime minister. Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin accused Netanyahu of “misleading the public on the Iran issue” and said that an Israeli attack “would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race.” Former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Benny Gantz took aim at Netanyahu’s heated rhetoric, saying, “Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.”
Just-released documents published by The Guardian reveal that the Mossad secretly contradicted Netanyahu’s past assertions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions (PDF). In a presentation before the UN in 2012, Bibi drew a red line near the top of a drawing of a bomb to demonstrate the shrinking time frame for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. The leaked Mossad files concluded just the opposite, that Iran is “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.”
Netanyahu’s behavior suggests the desperation of a politician facing the toughest election of his life, and this includes the 1999 election, which ended his first stint as prime minister. Deep down, Bibi knows if he loses this one, there’s no coming back a third time.
Beyond typical domestic legislative battles and never-ending threats of war, Netanyahu is loaded with political liabilities. Dogging the home stretch of his campaign are allegations against his wife, Sara, of drunkenly abusing employees and improperly pocketing recycling deposits from official functions, as well as a recent report from Israel’s State Comptroller suggesting an improper use of state funds, which could lead to a criminal investigation.
Writing for Brookings, Natan Sachs describes the current Israeli political climate as one suffering from “Netanyahu fatigue,” adding, “the elections have become, to a degree, a referendum on Netanyahu himself.” Netanyahu fatigue could translate to “Israel fatigue” in the United States, particularly on the left.
Netanyahu is forcing Democrats to choose between their leader, still popular in his own party, and the prime minister of a country whose policies are increasingly falling out of favor with young liberals. Worse for the special relationship between the two nations, many American Jews are taking pointed exception to Netanyahu’s assertion that he speaks as a “representative of the entire Jewish people.”
At The Nation, M.J. Rosenberg writes that Netanyahu’s recklessness has even caused a stir among the lobbyists most responsible for the staunch bipartisan support of Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC):
In the words of one ex-AIPAC staffer still close to the organization, “Netanyahu’s falling into bed with the Republicans has the people who run AIPAC seeing red, and not just the Democrats. The Republican board members aren’t stupid. They do not want AIPAC viewed as a GOP operation. But, increasingly, that is how AIPAC is viewed. With Netanyahu teaming up with Boehner to embarrass Obama, it is hard to dispute that AIPAC is becoming an organizational version of Sheldon Adelson. Meanwhile, every Jew in Congress except one is not only a Democrat but a liberal Democrat.”
If the speech goes ahead as planned, it could indeed be a watershed moment, but far removed from what Bibi intends. At a time when American opinions of Israel are changing, alienating half of the elite political class could leave Israel in a most precarious position long after Obama and Netanyahu have left office. Instead of rallying America to its cause, this could be what makes U.S. support of Israel a partisan issue, rather than the rubber stamp it has historically been.