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

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

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. 

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?

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.

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 03/02/2015 - 11:53 am.

    Ignoring Russia

    Russia is a trade ally of Iran and will not allow any military involvement by the US or Israel towards Iran. The US relationship with Russia is already poor due to events in Ukraine. This is pure political theater by the Republican party and Netanyahu and in some degree Netanyahu is being used by the Republican party for political gain.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/02/2015 - 12:08 pm.

    Congressional over-reach?
    In

    Congressional over-reach?

    In an attempt to overthrow treaty negotiations, the opposition party provides a platform for a foreign leader to harangue the population and president.

    Could the extraordinary influence of Israel in US policy be more exposed than this?

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 03/02/2015 - 01:21 pm.

      Actually, no

      I’ll admit upfront to being biased when it comes to support of Israel, but I think it has relatively little to do with influence – extraordinary or otherwise.

      The Republican House leadership took this action in a childish (and irresponsible) attempt to embarrass Obama. Netanyahu was simply a convenient, willing, and (equally) irresponsible pawn.

      Israel’s (and Netanyahu’s) concern about a nuclear Iran is real – and valid. But I think his willingness to accept the invitation is driven more by internal Israeli politics than an attempt to influence US policy (there are better ways to do that).

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/02/2015 - 04:45 pm.

        The “special relationship” gets tossed under the bus because Obama is president?

        What’s so “special” about that?

        Or isn’t Obama “American” enough?

        And is it Israel’s contention that Iran is too “evil” to negotiate with??

        Is it “bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran” everyday, all day?

        • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/02/2015 - 05:04 pm.

          And who pays

          For the bombs?

        • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 03/02/2015 - 08:52 pm.

          Having diffulting following the logic here

          Who said Obama isn’t “American” enough?

          As to “Israel’s contention”, you’ll find a wide array of opinions there, as you do here. What does remain constant is which country threatens the others existence.

          • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/03/2015 - 07:55 am.

            It plays exactly into the meme that Obama is “different”, that his policy is so radically different and bad, this unwarranted and unprecedented action is acceptable because Obama does not really reflect the true intertwined interests of America and Israel.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/02/2015 - 12:08 pm.

    Is there hope for peace when Bibi steps down?

    A suggestion…This a good article but could be another… flushing out the scenario of Bibi the bad boy of Israeli diplomacy, and so much more. Call it a companion article; should be read in tandem with…

    “Israeli ex-generals 200 veterans codemn Netanyahu ” by Jonathon Cook, Middle East Eye”; front page on Asia Times on-line.

    So much for breaking our past conformity to Israel’s dominant perspective’ which should never be tolerated when there still exists a constant willingness among peace loving Israelis and Palestinians and human rights advocates world-wide?

    Maybe there’s still a possibility of co-existence since this administration has finally shown a degree of sensitivity to both Israeli and Palestinian for a change…and do remember,one cannot be called anti-Semite if one recognizes both Semite groups and their right to co-exist in peace…so be it someday soon?

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 03/02/2015 - 12:53 pm.

    Iran has stated that one of its goals is total annihilation of the state of Israel. What you consider theater Netanyahu considers life and death. The only drama is one created by Obama and his minions about not being asked by our congress if Netanyahu could come speak to the American people.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/02/2015 - 08:03 pm.

      Meaning what?

      Time stands still? Once words are spoken and the person(s) that spoke them are long in the grave they still stand and stand for 100% of the affected mass? Iran is a country of ~ 78.5M people, thus the statement “Iran has stated” means all 78.5M believe the same thing with the same intensity? There is absolute zero room for philosophical movement or negotiations? Obama minions? Must be folks like me that believe perhaps, there is more intelligent path, talking is more constructive than bombing, Seems Jimmy Carter and his minions got Egypt and Israel to talk and lay down their bombs, near on 40 years ago, was that a bad idea? How about inviting Putin in to address the congress he looks at the westernization of eastern Europe as a life or death call for his Russia ?

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/02/2015 - 01:15 pm.

    Poor political maturity

    I don’t like the concept of inviting a foreign political leader to address the legislative body of my government. I don’t care who does it. Add to that the political questioning bubbling up (as it should) about our unwavering support of Israel while it continues to tweak its neighbors’ noses with impunity because it’s got a big (VERY big) brother to back it up.

    The decision to bring in Netanyahu to address Congress was a poor one even at the best of times. The timing, though, shows a particularly juvenile attitude with regard to actual governing of the country. What kind of war are you trying to start, Boehner? I’m serious, because this “nanananabooboo” move isn’t just juvenile, it’s the kind of juvenile that results in a car full of teenagers becoming road kill.

    Except it’s not just a handful of kids becoming victims of stupidity, it’s an entire country that stands in the middle of several simmering potential WORLD disputes. Lots of powerful egos are at risk of being irritated, and some of them have no problem with putting lots (and lots and lots) of lives (other than their own) at stake.

    What a fool among fools.

  6. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 03/02/2015 - 01:36 pm.

    I still don’t…..

    understand why President Obama gives more credibility and trust to the mullahs of Iran and other dictators yet continues to snub credible allies of the US. Is he unable to recognize evil?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/02/2015 - 04:48 pm.

      We negotiated with the evil empire during the entire cold war.

      Is it so unthinkable to negotiate with Iran?

      And how is seeking a peaceful resolution snubbing anyone?

      Is the only answer to pretend Netanyahu’s lies with respect to Iran’s nuclear capability are the truth and send the bombers over Iran?

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/03/2015 - 10:00 am.

      Who says he is?

      You are assuming that keeping the enemy closer is the same as trust and friendship. Besides, it’s naive to believe that the entire nation of Iran is evil, while believing that the entirety of Israel (or even the US) is not, and acting on that belief without question. Pushing that belief to the exclusion of a more realistic view is not terribly good, either.

  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/02/2015 - 05:00 pm.

    It requires no finely tuned sense of the ironic to see the irony in the reason why most Republicans “support” Israel– for the ordained destruction of Israel in the end times.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/02/2015 - 07:41 pm.

    Analysis

    So Mr. Boehner invited Mr. Netanyahu to speak without prior consent of the President… breach of protocol! Shame on the Speaker! However, I assume this does not violate any laws – no one mentioned that. But the President issued an executive order on immigration ignoring the Congress… and it seems that there is a law violation here, at least in theory. Anyone sees hypocrisy here?

    Anyway, let’s analyze this article. Netanyahu does see Iran as an existential threat to Israel – it is hard not to considering all the rhetoric coming out of Tehran. So isn’t it a first and foremost responsibility of any head of state to do anything to prevent such a threat to his or her state?
    Now, the author says that “The Americans and their allies see a possibility of bringing Iran back into the world community.” A country that denies Holocaust and has a anti-Holocaust cartoon competition, that stones people to death, that threatens its fellow UN member nation, that has been hiding its nuclear program for so long and still doesn’t want to answer the IAEA questions – that country cannot be brought back into world community; it is a wishful thinking.

    Yes, the Israelis want something that is simply too painful for Iran to ever accept. But is it OK to ask Israel to accept that they will have to live under the threat of annihilation? Won’t that be too painful for them? Everyone understands the feelings of Iranian, but not Israelis…

    The author also points out that a number of Western European countries are increasingly critical of Israel because of its actions in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere. The question is: why aren’t they critical of Hamas’ terrorism, aggression, and disregard for anything that is supposed to be dear to the Western democracies?

    The author acknowledges that Mr. Netanyahu speech may kill Obama’s Iran deal but then he equates it with effectively ending “the possibility of rebalancing U.S. relations with the Muslim world for the foreseeable future.” However, considering that Saudi Arabia and many other Arab nations are dead set against this agreement, it is hard to see how it (the agreement) can rebalance anything.

    The conclusion of the author is that “Netanyahu believes this dramatic act is worth the risk” and here I agree. However, if we combine the Israel’s fears that its existence is on the line with the possibility that this speech may prevent this agreement, Netanyahu’s position is very reasonable and logical.
    And saying that this speech puts “the remarkable bipartisan support Israel long has enjoyed in Washington on the table” is an exaggeration considering that, to the best of my knowledge, less than two dozen Democrats are skipping the speech. And Biden’s and Rice’ actions are just a reflection of Obama’s thinking.

    Yes, future U.S. leaders may be “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?” But so did the past leaders and their answer was yes (at least after 1973) but a big part of that has always been that they found it to be beneficial for America. And if at some moment in the future, an American leader would want to support Iran over Israel, it won’t be because of this Netanyahu speech…

    Mr. Frenkel, how would Russia not allow American military involvement? Will it attack the US?

    Mr. Rovick, how does Netanyahu’s speech harangue the population? Are you a fan of the “unlimited power of the Israel lobby” theory? Do you think ISIS is too evil to negotiate with? As for “seeking a peaceful solution,” it sounds great but when this solution is sought at the expense of others and with an almost certainty that it will be very short-lived, one should question the motive. It is also interesting to see your reference to Netanyahu’s “lies” in light of constant lies coming from Iran from the very beginning and up to this time.

    Ms. John-Knutson, will you please name a Palestinian equivalent of “Peace Now?” And please, read the dictionary – anti-Semitism is defined as hostility towards Jews and Judaism, nothing about other Semites.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/03/2015 - 01:38 pm.

      Re Analysis

      ” Netanyahu does see Iran as an existential threat to Israel “– And many Americans , after the Iraq war, are beginning to see through this hyperbole. That is thousands of lives and trillions of wasted dollars later.

      “Everyone understands the feelings of Iranian, but not Israelis…” – Hyperbole is not “feeling”. Netenyahu playing victim is not feelings. Its fakery.

      “why aren’t they critical of Hamas’ terrorism” – Europe bans Hamas. But that hasn’t stopped Israel from its settlement program.

      “if we combine the Israel’s fears that its existence” – Hyperbole at its finest. And regarding the bipartisan support; support for Israel among democrats has been dropping steadily. Its just like gay marriage. All our politicians were against it until they were all for it.

      Netanyahu’s speech on Iran close to nuclear weapons – Which one. The one ten years ago, twenty years ago, all predicting nuclear Iran in the next few years.

      Netanyahu’s lies vs Iran’s lies – I thought Netanyahu was our ally.

      Palestinian equivalent of “Peace Now?” – Al Haq. Thanks

  9. Submitted by tiffany vanvorken on 03/03/2015 - 06:46 am.

    Israel/USA

    It is extremely important that we hear what Bibi has to say. The Israeli intelligence knows what is going on in Iran. The US is ignorant of the nuclear progress.

  10. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/03/2015 - 08:24 am.

    “Where have all the poets gone?”…

    Destiny// will be changed one morning/ when at the edge of darkness/ they stand up/…it was said/ they have nothing to lose but their chains” Nazim Hitmet

    Funny thing about poets, if they are poets with a voice of conscience, they multiply during times of oppression.

    When hard core empire building is a nation’s theme, poets and poetry may be found but those poets usually turn to nature and softer themes with intellectual or human awareness secondary or not at all.Just one opinion here, but…

    The late, great Nazim Hikmet represents one of many; a powerful voice whose words survive and inspire; ever in the hearts and minds of those oppressed and peace activists from many nations speak his words.

    Just the other day I found another new one – one among many; poets words that give hope for future change…

    Mohammed al-Qurd a16 year old Palestinian…young and vibrant; and powerful voice …”peacefully resisting the Israeli occupation” (middleesteye.net)…”what do you do when your destiny is already embroidered in the womb?”…”There is a face/written/ but unread/with the ink of experience// I write the future/ the heart of thunder/ and the eye of lightening / only dance to the beat of/ Stop!”

    Where are the poets that praise Bibi’s legacy as his credibility and followers are turning away?

    Check out “The intellectual is resting, not dead” Ramzy Baroud (Asia times) internationally respected wordsmith; author, writer, editor of Palestine Chronicle and so much more…

  11. Submitted by Anthony Walsh on 03/03/2015 - 10:52 am.

    BIbi Quote From 2002:

    “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region…the test and the great opportunity and challenge is not merely to effect the ouster of the regime, but also transform that society and thereby begin too the process of democratizing the Arab world.”

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/03/2015 - 11:09 am.

    Just watched the speech; wow.

    In describing the situation for Democrats that boycotted it, I turn to that great Minnesotan couple, Oly & Lena:

    Uffda!

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/03/2015 - 11:49 am.

      Remember when lefties were opposed to nuclear proliferation?

      I guess it depends on which country they want to disarm and which country is the target.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 03/03/2015 - 05:55 pm.

      Oly and Lena would be an accurate representation

      Of Netanyahu’s speech…a bad joke. I’m not surprised that red meat conservatives, who have all the foreign policy acumen of a DC comic, lapped it up.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/04/2015 - 04:29 pm.

        Yeah, saying letting a nuclear capable Iran off the leash in 10 years is absurd…who are they fooling, eh, Myron?

  13. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/03/2015 - 08:56 pm.

    Let’s answer real things

    Mr. Maddali, how do you determine that claims of existential threat to Israel are a hyperbole? And what does it have to do with Iraq? What do you know about feelings of Israelis? Europe bans Hamas and yet promises to give money to restore Gaza (the third time, by the way) where Hamas rules. Has Al-Haq condemned Hamas for firing missiles into Israel and for hiding those missiles in the UN schools?

    Ms. John-Knutson, your discussion about poets and very touching… but have you checked the anti-Semitism definition? And will you change your mind if I find a poet who wrote a poem praising Netanyahu? By the way, there were millions of poems praising Stalin and Lenin… and majority were even sincere.

  14. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/04/2015 - 08:04 am.

    Interesting

    I find it interesting that “conservatives” will happily allow the leader of a Middle Eastern country to dictate AMERICAN foreign policy. The only reason I can think that this is an acceptable situation to conservatives is that the only option for implementing Netanyahu’s vision is to turn Iran into a parking lot. And, for some reason, the idea of massive blood shed excites the right wing. That being said, I don’t understand how the concept of spending trillions of taxpayer dollars to benefit someone other than Americans is palatable to these so-called deficit hawks. Which do you want, guys? Money or blood? You can’t have both.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/04/2015 - 08:40 am.

    Blah blah

    I don’t think anyone outside of wonks is even paying attention. I doubt that more than 50% (if that) of Americans could even tell you who Netanyahu is. Meanwhile republican blowhards are becoming irrelevant every day, and the guys who charged into Iraq looking for WMD’s that weren’t there are not going to find a sympathetic audience in the US.

    Netanyahu doesn’t appear be a great leader for Israel, his policies certainly haven’t ended the Palestinian conflict. I don’t know why anyone would think that Bibi’s a better President than our President.

    This attempt to meddle in US foreign policy could seriously backfire. I think most American’s on the heels of the longest war in US history, will bristle at the suggestion the the US military is an instrument of Israeli foreign policy. Nor will idea that someone else’s prime minister should make American policy decisions far well in the gallery. One thing it is to criticize Obama, quite another it is to let Bibi tell the US congress what to do. Republicans go there at their own peril.

  16. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/04/2015 - 07:15 pm.

    Advice only

    Ms. Kahler, have you listened to Mr. Netanyahu speech? Did he ask to do something specifically for Israel? I think he was saying that the deal is bad for the world, including America. Yes, Israel will benefit from new approach, too, but that was not the main point. So this speech was for information only, in hope that the US will make the right decision.

    Mr. Udstrand, my guess is that more Americans know who Netanyahu is than who Senator Warren is. We can also dispute who will find a sympathetic audience http://www.politico.com/story/2015/03/benjamin-netanyahu-israel-support-poll-115644.html. Of course it is funny that you make a decision who the great leader for Israel is since you would be upset if Israelis were making decision about Obama’s greatness. And of course no previous Israeli leader ended the conflict with Palestinians (but not through their fault, of course). And again, Netanyahu did not tell America what to do; he just suggested the reasonable course of actions.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/06/2015 - 09:42 pm.

      Thou doust protest excessively!

      Why should not Hassan Rouhani have an equal opportunity to present the Iranian position? Or has thou already closed thine eyes and ears to possible truths?
      Mr. Boehner please extend the invitation, or does thou fear a contrary opinion!

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