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Why Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress could have real long-term consequences

The Prime Minister’s speech is hugely controversial in Israel, as well. As much as Israelis might chafe at U. S. policies, most know how important the relationship is.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting the Western Wall on Saturday.
REUTERS/Marc Sellem/Pool

It would be easy to dismiss the speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers in Washington on Tuesday as an act of theater concocted by cynical politicians. This is, after all, an era of rampant partisanship in the United States and election season in Israel. 

But beyond the chatter about whose ego takes a hit and who stands to benefit, this address by a foreign leader to a Republican-controlled Congress without the prior consent of the Democratic president could have real long-term consequences. The speech puts a spotlight on policies toward Iran — the topic of Netanyahu’s speech — and Israel that have been cornerstones of the U.S. approach to the Middle East for nearly as long as many of us have been alive. 

And in the incremental way that excites pundits but often bores most others, it could help nudge the U.S. approach toward Iran and Israel in new directions. While this still may turn out to be just another tempest in a political teapot, it’s worth paying attention to how the speech plays.

Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program are in a crucial phase, and news reports suggest the outline of a possible deal. 

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Netanyahu’s regard of Iran as an existential threat to Israel and his opposition to any deal that doesn’t lead to the complete dismantling of its atomic program are well known. The Israeli prime minister is given to making his points dramatically, but not always effectively. This is the same Bibi whose depiction of a Boris Badenov-type Iranian bomb displayed in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in 2012, was greeted with widespread head-scratching and more than a little ridicule. Two weeks before a tight Israeli general election, it’s not clear what new arguments — if any — he may be able to employ.

Despite the well-documented antipathy between Netanyahu and President Obama, U.S.-Israeli ties – institutional, cultural, personal — are longstanding and deep.

But there are fundamental disagreements on a number of issues, including on Iran – even though neither government trusts the Islamic Republic and no one expects it to turn into a paragon of virtue overnight. As this piece by the speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, makes clear, Israel wants far more than the deal that is taking shape. The Americans and their allies see a possibility of bringing Iran back into the world community — slowly and cautiously. For those who have been close to the negotiations, the Israelis want something that is simply too painful for Iran to ever accept. And that would encourage those in Iran who regard the West as a mortal enemy.

Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, at the invitation of the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, is hugely controversial in Israel, as well. As much as Israelis might chafe at U. S. policies, most know full well how important the relationship is. And with a number of Western European countries increasingly critical of Israel because of its actions in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere, U.S. backing is all the more important.

His political opponents, not surprisingly, accuse Netanyahu of using the appearance before Congress for political purposes. On Sunday, a group of 180 former military and intelligence officials urged him to cancel the speech, saying it could do more harm than good.

It is possible this high-profile address by a close ally could turn a few votes in Congress against an agreement that Secretary of State John F. Kerry and diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China might be able to make with Iran. Obama already faces a tough battle to sell Congress on any deal that hardliners in Tehran also could swallow.

A handful of votes therefore could kill one of Obama’s highest profile foreign policy initiatives and effectively end the possibility of rebalancing U.S. relations with the Muslim world for the foreseeable future.

It’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that Netanyahu believes this dramatic act is worth the risk, in part because relations with the U.S. can’t get any worse than they are under Obama.

Is that true?

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By accepting Boehner’s invitation, he is putting the remarkable bipartisan support Israel long has enjoyed in Washington on the table. Prominent Democrats are boycotting the speech. Vice President Joe Biden won’t be there. Kerry sounded a bit more diplomatic on Sunday, but has been bitingly critical. National Security Advisor Susan Rice publicly declared the speech “destructive.” That’s powerful language to use on an ally.

The danger for Israel is not that the relationship will shatter, but that Netanyahu’s speech will contribute to a corrosion over time. You can imagine future U.S. leaders asking themselves: In a region in flux, where U.S. support for Israel comes at a cost, is staying so close to Israel worth the trouble?

In the world of diplomacy, change is almost always glacial. But on the other hand, nothing is guaranteed to last forever.