A historic speech and a dangerous gamble

Netanyahu will become the second statesman in history to address Congress three times. He wants to avert a nuclear Iran, but will his defiance of Obama actually make a deal more likely?

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a joint meeting of the US Congress, July 10, 1996. Seated behind him are US vice president Al Gore, left, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. (photo credit: Yaacov Saar/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a joint meeting of the US Congress, July 10, 1996. Seated behind him are US vice president Al Gore, left, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. (photo credit: Yaacov Saar/GPO)

The world must act to prevent Iran’s nuclearization, since “the deadline for attaining this goal is getting extremely close.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke these words nearly two decades ago, during his first speech to a joint meeting of Congress on July 10, 1996.

Fifteen years later, in the spring of 2011, Netanyahu addressed the same forum a second time. “When I last stood here, I spoke of the consequences of Iran developing nuclear weapons,” he recalled. “Now time is running out. The hinge of history may soon turn, for the greatest danger of all could soon be upon us: a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.”

This Tuesday, Netanyahu plans to take the podium a third time. Despite pleas from plenty of politicians and pundits — even those generally welcoming of his policies — to cancel the speech for the sake of Jerusalem’s good relations with Washington, there will be no turning back. Israel’s prime minister is going to Congress again, armed with a speech that will be remembered for several reasons.

For one, Netanyahu will become only the second person in history to achieve this particular hat trick, surpassing Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin, who addressed Congress twice. (Chaim Herzog, Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres each did so once.) The only other world leader to have addressed Congress three times is Winston Churchill, whom Netanyahu admires for having warned the world about Nazism and then defeated it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
PM Netanyahu addresses the US Congress in Washington, May 24, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Some commentators have argued that Netanyahu must speak before Congress a third time — the rift this is causing with the US administration be damned — precisely because he is the “Churchill of our time.” Like the British prewar leader in the 1930s with Nazi Germany, “Netanyahu has been sounding the alarm about Iran’s ominous nuclear and terrorist activities,” publishing magnate and former Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes opined. “Congress needs to hear first-hand the truth about what Iran is doing and the dreadful implications of those activities.”

While Netanyahu’s speech has yet to be finalized — he started crafting it this week, together with his confidant, Israeli ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer — Iran will be front and center. “We know what he is going to say,” said John Yarmuth, a Jewish Congressman from Kentucky.

While careful not to offend any US officials personally, Netanyahu will forcefully attack the prospective deal the six world powers, under American leadership, are said to be willing to sign with Iran regarding its rogue nuclear program.

“The agreement that is being formulated between Iran and the major powers is dangerous for Israel and therefore I will go to the US next week in order to explain to the American Congress, which could influence the fate of the agreement, why this agreement is dangerous for Israel, the region and the entire world,” the prime minister said Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2011 (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci, File)
PM Netanyahu with House Speaker John Boehner in Washington, May 24, 2011 (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci, File)

While the US constitution grants authority over foreign policy to the president, Netanyahu added Tuesday that Congress “is likely to be the final brake before” any deal is sealed.

The goal is clear: persuade the legislators to quickly pass a law that would call for more sanctions on Iran. His aides refused to say this week if the prime minister will actively encourage Congress to legislate additional sanctions, offering merely that he will outline what a good deal would look like and stress that a bad deal needs to be prevented at all costs.

The Israeli leader is cognizant that his efforts might prove futile, possibly even counterproductive, and yet he remains determined to try. “Now, can I guarantee that my speech in Congress will prevent a dangerous deal with Iran from being signed? Honestly, I don’t know. No one knows,” he admitted last week. “But I do know this — it’s my sacred duty as prime minister of Israel to make Israel’s case.”

Netanyahu’s insistence on addressing Congress two weeks before the Knesset elections has elicited accusations that he seeks to exploit the speech for electoral gains. The concern over partisanship is the reason US President Barack Obama gave to explain his refusal to welcome the Israeli leader to the White House this time.

Other Democrats did not hesitate to explicitly attack the Israeli leader in this context, something usually unheard of in Washington. “I believe the timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress — just days before Israeli elections — is highly inappropriate,” Senator Tim Kaine said this week.

“This speech is high theater for a re-election campaign in Israel,” Congressman Steve Cohen from Tennessee declared in a statement. Recalling that Netanyahu used footage of his 2011 speech to Congress in an ad aired before the 2013 elections “to great advantage,” Cohen demanded that a third invitation to address the lawmakers should include the condition that it not be used in a campaign ad.

Netanyahu’s plan to agitate against the prospective Iran agreement is “reckless,” Cohen added; the way the speech has been organized is “dangerous to Israel as well as inappropriate.” (Another Cohen — Netanyahu’s national security adviser Yossi — reportedly told his interlocutors in Washington that he opposes the speech as well, though Cohen quickly denied that report.)

More than two dozen members of the House of Representatives and three senators have said they will be absent from Tuesday’s address, with scores of Congressmen still deliberating whether to attend or skip the speech. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry already announced they won’t be there; both cited commitments abroad.

The unending arguments surrounding the address — which has been called “the most controversial speech to a joint session of Congress ever by a foreign leader” — have turned the question of the Iran deal into a bona fide partisan issue, suggested Amnon Cavari, who teaches American politics at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

“The speech will fall on partisan ears,” he said. “The Republicans will agree, Democrats will disagree. All this is turning Israel into a polarizing issue as well.”

Netanyahu wants Congress to legislate more sanctions on Iran to get a better deal. But Obama has made clear that he would block any such bill, and the Republicans lack the needed two-thirds majority to overturn the presidential veto, Cavari noted. By going behind Obama’s back and potentially urging Congress to pass laws against the president’s express will, Netanyahu would be “causing more harm to Israel” than anything else.

“Obama can veto the sanctions bill. He said he will veto it. Therefore we cannot expect any change in US policy from this speech,” Cavari said.

Still, Cavari added, Netanyahu could argue that by getting lawmakers to legislate more sanctions, he indirectly provides the president with more leverage in the negotiations with Iran. Congress isn’t happy with the current terms of the deal, Obama could tell the Iranians; therefore, you will have to compromise a bit to make me sell this at home. “That is one of the arguments that supporters of Netanyahu are quoting. They understand that he can’t change US policy because of Obama’s veto.”

US President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber, Tuesday, January 28, 2014, in Washington (photo credit: AP/Larry Downing, Pool)
US President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber, Tuesday, January 28, 2014, in Washington (photo credit: AP/Larry Downing, Pool)

At the end of the day, however, it remains exceedingly unlikely that the speech will change anything on the Iran deal, Cavari posited. “Even if it did, it’s not worth the tension between Obama administration and Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu’s allies in Israel and in America disagree, of course, arguing that the supreme threat emanating from a nuclear Iran overrules any other concerns. But a speech that flies in the face of the American president is a dangerous gamble — one that, if Netanyahu loses, could make Israel a less safe place.

It was always unlikely that Congress would be able to overturn Obama’s veto on any sanctions bill, but now the possibility has dwindled to zero, with many Congressmen determined not to let a brazen Israeli leader best their own president. Worse, the ever-increasing hostility between the administration and the Israeli government will likely diminish the extent to which Washington will take Jerusalem’s concerns into consideration during the negotiations with Iran.

“The deal will therefore go ahead,” Dov S. Zakheim, a former top official close to several Republican administrations, predicted in Foreign Policy. “Will Israel respond to what on its face is indeed a bad deal with Iran by launching a strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities? And if it does, given the atmosphere that Netanyahu has generated in Washington, can it seriously expect American support of any kind? How long would it take for Iran to recover from a strike and obtain a nuclear weapon? Five years? Ten years? Without American support, how safe would Israelis be in a decade’s time?”

Being on the president’s bad side could also prove detrimental on a variety of other fronts, given the generous US diplomatic, financial and military backing Israel currently enjoys — and depends upon.

From an Israeli perspective, the prospective nuclear deal with Iran, at least as reported, appears indeed inadequate. The Americans made too many concessions, and the Iranians might get dangerously close to nuclear weapons capability. But Netanyahu’s strategy to prevent the agreement by giving a defiant speech in Congress would also seem deficient. It might not only prove ineffective in thwarting the deal, but could also antagonize the government of Israel’s closest and most powerful ally for years to come.

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