Netanyahu’s White House-defying speech could backfire

A polished address alone won’t lead lawmakers to back Iran sanctions bill. Pushed to a loyalty contest, even Republicans will side with Obama

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented himself as a fearless guardian of Israel’s security when he vowed Sunday to spare no effort in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, promising to “go anywhere I am invited in order to enunciate the State of Israel’s position and in order to defend its future and its existence.”

The prime minister’s defiant declaration came on the heels of his invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress about the “grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” The invite, issued by Speaker of the House John Boehner, was not coordinated with the White House, whose view on how best to approach the Iranian issue significantly diverges from that of Netanyahu.

Boehner’s move, which reportedly came at the behest of Israel’s ambassador to the US, close Netanyahu confidant Ron Dermer, was widely perceived as a slap in the face of US President Barack Obama, who quickly announced that he would not be meeting with Netanyahu during his visit.

Speaking to Congress about the Iranian nuclear program — or, to be more precise, calling for more sanctions on the regime and arguing against a presumed deal that would leave Tehran as a nuclear threshold state — is Netanyahu’s “most sacred duty,” Dermer declared Sunday. The prime minister’s controversial trip to Washington two weeks before the Israeli elections has a single goal, the ambassador explained: “To speak up while there is still time to speak up. To speak up when there is still time to make a difference.”

It is highly doubtful, however, that the prime minister’s March 3 speech will succeed in making Israel much safer; if anything, it could turn out to be counterproductive.

A polished and passionate speech, delivered in unaccented American English, is sure to be greeted with minutes-long standing ovations. But will it persuade even a single lawmaker to change his or her position on the Iran sanctions bills that are currently under discussion in Washington?

On the hill, how people vote is the result of many considerations: long-standing ideology, intensive lobbying, and last-minute backroom dealings. A few eloquent words from a foreign dignitary rarely change a Yea to a Nay, or vice versa.

Indeed, the controversy surrounding Netanyahu’s invite to Washington, and the fact that it is being viewed — even by some Republicans — as an affront to the president, might actually lead the Iran sanctions bills to fail when otherwise they might have succeeded, according to several experts, including top officials in Jerusalem.

“Congressmen are politicians. By the time Netanyahu holds his speech, they will have made up their minds,” said Shmuel Sandler, an expert on US foreign policy at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Those who will be swayed to his way will be balanced out by those who will want to protect their president” against a perceived attack on him by the prime minister, he added.

While the speech has yet to be written, it can be safely assumed that Netanyahu will make a passionate plea for more sanctions on Iran to force the regime to abandon its quest for a nuclear weapons capacity. While he will presumably not explicitly endorse the main sanctions bill being drafted in the Senate by senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), his support for such legislation will not be very subtle.

“It really depends on how Netanyahu flavors his speech,” said Shlomo Slonim, the former chairman of Hebrew University’s American Studies program. “If the flavor is one of reconciliation and deep and abiding gratitude to Obama for the support he provides to Israel in all spheres, and if this impresses members of Congress, his speech will carry weight with them.” If, on the other hand, Netanyahu chooses a confrontational tone, his words will sharpen the dispute between him and the president, and the whole exercise will prove unproductive, he added.

In the best-case scenario, Netanyahu will deliver his speech; the White House will not like it, but will still put a good face on the matter; and enough lawmakers will be convinced to pass the sanctions bill. (The president has vowed to veto any such legislation, but a two-thirds majority can overrule him. That means that 67 senators — including at least 13 Democrats — would be needed to pass the bill into law, which at the moment looks exceedingly unlikely.)

US President Barack Obama (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) prepare for a press session in the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
US President Barack Obama (right) and PM Netanyahu in the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

Convincing Congress to increase the pressure on Iran — with the intention of preventing a terribly perilous nuclear deal — is far more important than trying to avoid another in a long line of spats with Obama, who is a lame duck anyway, Netanyahu must be thinking.

In the worst-case scenario, however, Netanyahu’s speech — not the content, but the very fact that it’s taking place against the president’s will — will lead some Congressmen who originally favored the sanctions bill to vote against it, making its success virtually impossible. The irregular manner in which Netanyahu insisted on speaking in Congress, openly defying the White House, did not only upset Democrats. Even anchors on the arch-conservative Fox News channel scolded the Israeli prime minister, and several experts interviewed for this article said that even for Republicans a red line is crossed when a foreigner attacks their president.

There is a consensus in Israel that the government needs to act to prevent an agreement between the West and Iran that’ll leave Tehran with the means to destroy the Jewish state. But delivering to Congress a speech that bashes the administration’s Iran policy does little — if anything — to achieve that, suggested Jonathan Rynhold, an expert on Israel-US relations at Bar-Ilan University.

“I’m not sure the prime minister is able to sway [Obama’s Iran policy]. But because of the way in which this was done, it will actually backfire,” he said. Netanyahu’s actions were so blatant that some Democrats, who might otherwise support more sanctions, will side with the president. “Pushed to a loyalty contest, they’re not going to go with Netanyahu. It’s causing Democrats to come out and say that they’re against Netanyahu and his policies, and that damages bilateral ties.”

While Republicans are the natural allies of Netanyahu, special care needs to be given to the Democrats to ensure that support for Israel remains bipartisan, added Rynhold. “But what Netanyahu is doing damages relations with the Democrats for no visible gain. If he could change Obama’s policy on Iran, which is absolutely crucial for Israel’s security, it would be worth the hit. But he can’t, based on how it looks in Congress right now, so you have to wonder what’s going on.”

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