Netanyahu’s Iran Speech in Congress Is a Recipe for an Explosive U.S.-Israel Clash

PM’s Congressional gambit unlikely to sway voters in Israel but could endanger Israel’s long term interests in America.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Obama and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, May 20, 2011.
Obama and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, May 20, 2011.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on February 11 on the issue of Iran. Netanyahu has apparently accepted. It is not known, and may never be known, whether this bright idea came from the creative department in Congress or in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, but the White House has already weighed in by describing it as a “departure from protocol.”

What is clear is that the move achieves several results, all with potentially negative ramifications for Israel’s long-term interests. It portrays the Republican leadership as interfering in the Israeli election campaign and Netanyahu as intervening in the faceoff between Congress and the administration. It injects the U.S.-Israeli relationship into the Israeli election campaign and it inserts the troubled Obama-Netanyahu relationship into the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Above all, it places Netanyahu and the White House on a collision course that could make their previous clashes seem like child’s play.

Of these concerns, the Republican intervention in the Israeli elections is the less troubling. U.S. administrations have intervened in the past in Israeli elections, with questionable results: Clinton went all out for Shimon Peres in 1996, and even organized an international anti-terror conference in his honor, but ended up with Netanyahu as prime minister. And while Netanyahu’s center-left rivals in the upcoming elections might grumble about the foreign aid that he is receiving from his pals in Congress, they are unlikely to remember the incident if and when they are elected to office in the March 17 ballot and if and when a Republican is elected president in November 2016.

It’s not even clear, in fact, that the speech will do Netanyahu much good, electorally speaking: Israelis are already used to seeing him receiving a rapturous reception in Congress and are unlikely to be swayed by the event one way or the other. The rationalizations of right-wing apologists - who were recently flabbergasted by the mere whiff of a possible anti-Netanyahu intervention by Barack Obama – by which the Iran issue is so existential as to override parochial political considerations might work in America, but probably won’t carry much weight among chronically cynical Israeli voters, even those who intend to vote for the prime minister.

Far more problematic is Netanyahu’s willingness to openly defy the president in his own Congressional backyard on an issue on which Obama has vowed to fight to the end. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Obama drew a line in the sand, saying that the new sanctions “will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.” Pledging to use his veto against any new sanctions bill, Obama said that “The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.”

It goes without saying, of course, that had Netanyahu and Obama fostered a better relationship, despite their differences, this showdown could have been avoided. By accepting Boehner’s invitation, Netanyahu is allowing himself to be used as a Republican instrument in the GOP’s ongoing clash with Obama, a position that he already holds by virtue of his 2012 intervention on behalf of Mitt Romney. He is openly aligning himself with legislation that Obama claims will derail diplomacy with Tehran. And if Obama’s predictions are borne out by events, he is exposing himself to the claim that he was a main protagonist in driving the United States to the brink of war or to war itself with a major Middle Eastern power, to the chagrin of American public opinion, which opposes such a move.

These dangers go far beyond the scope of electoral ploys and political machinations. At best, they could jeopardize any hope for an amicable relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, should he win the March elections. At worst they could lay the groundwork for an unprecedented and potentially explosive rupture in U.S.-Israeli relations and in Israel’s long-term standing in American public opinion.

One can only hope that all of these factors were carefully weighed in Jerusalem before Netanyahu agreed to accept Boehner’s invitation, though, based on past experience, there is little ground for such optimism. The alternative is that Netanyahu’s genuine apprehension about American’s Iran talks have combined with his growing exasperation over his problematic polls in recent weeks to produce a Hail Mary move that could make or break the very foundations of U.S.-Israeli relations.

And then there’s this: By accepting Boehner’s invitation, Netanyahu is promoting the perception that the GOP intervened on his behalf. He is thus laying the groundwork for potential tit-for-tat retaliation by the Obama administration, which has hitherto shied away from acting against the least favored leader of its’ most favored ally.

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