Drama Over Netanyahu's Speech to Congress Is Shifting in His Favor

Congress and millions of Americans are eager to hear what the Israeli prime minister has to say on Iran, and, once he leaves, it is U.S. President Barack Obama who will be on the spot.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the crowd at AIPAC conference, March 2, 2015.
Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the crowd at AIPAC conference, March 2, 2015.Credit: Bloomberg
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

The drama over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress seems, as the event approaches, to be shifting in Israel’s favor. None of it is dispositive, but what is coming into focus is the fact that Congress and millions of Americans are eager to hear what Netanyahu has to say, and, once he leaves, it is U.S. President Barack Obama who will be on the spot.

One item is what is being billed as a unanimous vote in the Senate welcoming the Israeli leader. Another is the publication of a column by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the journalist on the Mideast beat closest to Mr. Obama, fretting about the terms of the Iran pact and warning of the consequences of a weak deal.

Most significant is the news from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee appears to be emerging in support of Menendez-Kirk, the legislation that Obama warns could scupper the P5+1 talks. AIPAC had earlier flinched in that fight. If it openly enters the fight for Menendez-Kirk, the bill would have a better chance of gaining a veto-proof majority.

The vote to welcome Netanyahu to the Senate started out as a Republican maneuver. But no Democratic senator moved to oppose it, which is how it managed to become a unanimous resolution even though at least two senators plan to skip Netanyahu’s speech. The resolution itself calls Netanyahu’s visit “a timely opportunity to reinforce the United States-Israel relationship” and says the Senate “eagerly awaits” his remarks. It also restated the Senate’s support for Israel’s “right to defend itself from threats to its very survival.” The Senate’s highest-ranking member, Vice President Joe Biden, put out his own statement saying Netanyahu was welcome.

More intriguing is the column by Goldberg, published Sunday in the Atlantic. I see Goldberg, a marvelous reporter, as an important player; he has become so well-sourced with the president that his columns are followed almost as if he were a government official. His column Sunday ran under the headline, “Danger Ahead for Obama on Iran.”

Goldberg noted that the day after Netanyahu speaks, the focus will return to the president. That’s not news. What is news is that Goldberg, who has sided with Obama in his feud with Netanyahu, is now characterizing the deal with Iran as one that “does not fill me” with “confidence.” He’s worried about the sunset clause and even more worried at the prospect of Iranian cheating before the sun has set.

The columnist now worries that Obama won’t actually have Israel’s back. If Israeli security circles conclude that the president “has agreed to a weak deal, one that provides a glide path for Iran toward the nuclear threshold,” he adds, “then we will be able to say, fairly, that Obama’s promises to Israel were not kept.” Considering the source, that’s a devastating formulation.

It also throws into sharp relief the logic of moving forward with Mendendez-Kirk, which is what ignited the feud between Obama and Congress. The measure would restore sanctions if Iran defaults under the agreement (or fails to sign one) and could tighten sanctions. It also expresses support for an Israel military attack.

Given the contingent nature of its terms, Obama ought to have embraced the legislation from the get-go. But, in a Neville-Chamberlainian moment, Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave in to fears that the Iranians would pull out of the talks if Congress acted. In any event, the logic of Congress acting is becoming greater by the hour.

Could the prime minister crater in Congress? It’s always possible. But I did watch over the weekend Netanyahu’s previous two addresses to a joint meeting, and he was wonderful and so was Congress. On the first occasion, in 1996, he had also been brought up to the hill by Republican leadership and much to the consternation of a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, at the time.

Netanyahu wisely began with a salute to the two Israeli Laborite leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who had previously addressed a joint meeting. He then noted that the honor bestowed on him was “not personal” but is, rather, “a tribute to the unshakable fact that the unique relationship between Israel and the United States transcends politics and parties, governments and diplomacy.”

He then spoke of how we share an “infinite dedication to freedom.” He said Israelis “admire America for its moral force.” Then this: “As Jews and as Israelis, we are proud that this moral force is derived from the Bible and the precepts of morality that the Jewish people have given the world.” This is when Congress erupted in applause, the kind of ovation that appears just as likely to interrupt his speech time and again on Tuesday.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of the Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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