Should Netanyahu cancel his speech to Congress?

PM’s options amid crisis with the White House include calling his visit off, postponing it, remaking it, or taking a friend. For now, he’s set to proceed as planned

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

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

After last month’s giant solidarity rally in Paris, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to address a joint meeting of Congress in March marks the second time in this still young year that the Israeli leader shows up in the capital of a major ally against the will of the host country’s president.

The first episode ended without a major diplomatic falling-out; France’s Francois Hollande did not want Netanyahu to attend the rally, but after the prime minister insisted, Paris also invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as counterweight.

However, Netanyahu’s determination to come to Washington and attack America’s Iran policy, in a March 3 speech to Congress planned behind the administration’s back, is liable to further damage the already-strained ties between Jerusalem and the White House.

Anxious about a deal between Iran and six world powers that would legitimize the Islamic Republic as a nuclear threshold state, and apparently convinced that a speech before American lawmakers could help avert such a deal, Netanyahu on Thursday made plain his appearance in Congress will take place as planned.

“It is my obligation as the prime minister of Israel to speak out against the danger of a nuclear agreement with Iran, and to do everything I can to prevent it,” he said.

And yet, calls grow louder for Netanyahu to call the whole thing off. Naturally, his political opponents at home were the first to attack the prime minister, accusing him of turning American support for Israel into partisan issue. Leading members of the Democratic party soon joined the chorus, with Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, openly calling on Netanyahu to cancel.

“Things happen in people’s schedules. You just never know,” Pelosi said, hinting that some Congressmen from her party might not find the time to attend Netanyahu’s speech if he insists on delivering it.

On Thursday, Haaretz reported that several Israeli consuls general have called Netanyahu’s planned speech in Congress a “major mistake.” Even AIPAC, the staunchly pro-Israel lobby, was reported on Army Radio and Israel’s Channel 2 on Thursday to have come out the prime minister’s plan, though the organization did not confirm such reports.

Should Netanyahu cancel? Well, that’s one option. Given the supreme importance of Israel’s ties with the world’s only superpower, the prime minister would be well advised to consider the various possibilities he has.

Option one: Cancellation

First, he could simply call off the speech. It is not difficult to create a scenario that would allow him to bow out of the entire Washington visit without losing too much face: He could cite sudden scheduling difficulties, medical necessities, or other emergencies or commitments; current affairs are never dull here, pretexts of greater and lesser credibility can be relied upon to emerge.

Nancy Pelosi with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in May 2009 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Nancy Pelosi with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House in May 2009 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

The administration clearly prefers this option, but judging by Netanyahu’s recent statements it is the most unlikely scenario. Two weeks before the elections, the prime minister will not easily give up on the photo ops and domestic electoral perks that a trip to DC ostensibly entails, especially when changing course brings the risk of being branded weak and worse by political rivals.

Option two: A more private forum

Another, perhaps more feasible option would be for Netanyahu to announce that he will skip the joint meeting of Congress, but will still come to Washington for meetings with senior lawmakers and White House officials, in which he can make the case against the projected Iran deal less publicly (and less provocatively for the administration). Several US legislators on both sides of the aisles have suggested such an arrangement.

“The Israelis and the Americans are currently digging into their positions, but there is a way in which both sides can save face. What’s needed is creative thinking,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and former deputy chief of the Israeli embassy in Washington.

The prime minister could publicly declare that all he wanted was to deliver a message of concern over the Iran deal and that he had no intention of insulting President Barack Obama, Eran suggested. Rather than insisting on addressing Congress, therefore, Netanyahu should ask for meetings with the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the heads of the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees, and make his point in private rather than in front of the television cameras.

“If Netanyahu had no intention of upstaging the president — and I assume this is the case — and if he’s really just concerned about the Iranian issue, the ceremonial side of it is insignificant,” Eran opined.

Would such an about-face not humiliate Netanyahu, who has declared repeatedly that he will speak on Iran wherever he is invited? “On the contrary, he will score points in Israel and in the United States,” Eran replied. If the prime minister took the initiative to solve the speech crisis he would actually appear as the responsible adult, he added.

But the Americans, too, ought to make a gesture, perhaps by arranging a private meeting between Netanyahu and Vice President Joe Biden, Eran proposed. “Everyone gets to make their point; both sides are saying that they don’t want to play politics in each other’s courts and just discuss the issues at hand,” he said.

Option three: Postponement

Another option is for Netanyahu to postpone his address to Congress until after the Israeli elections.

Much of the criticism of his decision to fly to Washington was directed at the fact that the speech is so close to March 17, and thus appeared to serve his campaign needs more than anything else. The administration quoted the visit’s close proximity to the elections as a reason to deny the prime minister a meeting with Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

“If Netanyahu went to DC after the election, this argument would be eliminated,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The obvious problem with this course of action is that the whole purpose of Netanyahu’s speech in Congress is to warn lawmakers of the dangers of a weak agreement with Iran. The State Department’s stated deadline for a political agreement with Iran is the end of March, days after Israel heads to the polls. And Netanyahu “feels the deepest moral obligation to appear and speak before the Congress while there is still time for him to make a difference,” Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer said.

Option four: Bring company

If the timing makes an postponement impossible, Netanyahu should take his primary rival for the premiership — the Zionist Camp’s Isaac Herzog — with him to Washington, Gilboa suggested. To avoid the impression that the speech solely serves a political purpose, Netanyahu should see to it that Herzog gets to speak at the AIPAC convention as well as in Congress, Gilboa proposed.

“This is the best way to present a unified Israeli position. Herzog is also concerned about Iran, as much as Netanyahu,” he said. “For this speech to be effective, either you postpone it or take Herzog with you.”

Speaking on the scheduled date, by himself, “is likely to be counterproductive, because everybody is watching him,” Gilboa added. Netanyahu goal’s was to influence the US government’s position on the nuclear negotiations but if he goes ahead with the speech, and if some Democratic legislators boycott it, deny him applause or even walk out, as some have threatened, “the end result would be hardening the Iranian position in the negotiation,” he said.

Current Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2013 (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Current Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2013 (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Netanyahu and his inner circle evidently still believe that the planned address in Congress may turn the tide and help save the world from a bad deal with Iran. “For the prime minister of Israel to refuse such an invitation would be a terrible mistake,” Dore Gold, a senior Netanyahu advisor, said in an interview this week with Fathom journal. “More than that, it is not just permissible to come and speak to both houses of Congress, it is his national responsibility, considering the nature of the developing Iranian threat.”

Gilboa disagrees wholeheartedly, arguing that the speech has the potential to cause Israel real damage. “The whole thing was a mistake from the beginning,” he said. If Netanyahu sticks to his guns, he is forcing the Democrats to side with the president and against the Israeli leader. “This is not just another crisis between Netanyahu and the White House — this is turning into a crisis with Congress, the number one supporter of Israel in the US. To go to Congress and destroy bipartisan support for Israel would be a huge mistake.”

Most Popular
read more: