Sense and Nonsense about the Netanyahu Speech

There is a lot of noise and political posturing in the discussion over the circumstances and wisdom of the prime minister of Israel speaking to the U.S. Congress next month. One of the main arguments against him speaking is that it will damage U.S.-Israel relations because the arrangements were not made according to protocol, appeared to be partisan and angered the president.

The truth is this is just one more tempest in the history of a relationship where presidents and prime minister’s frequently clash over perceptions of each government’s national interest. As before, this too shall pass and the United States will not abandon its support for Israel; nevertheless, the prime minister has unnecessarily raised tensions.

It is never a good idea to upset the president of the United States given the dependency of Israel on American political, economic and military support. On the other hand, the relationship between the two leaders was already so bad, it’s doubtful this latest contretemps has made things any worse. Most Israelis have little faith in Obama and believe he has pursued policies consistently at odds with Israel’s interests. Moreover, Obama has apparently adopted the Arabist notion that Israel is to blame for instability in the Middle East. It is possible that Obama may yet take some precipitous action against Israel – possibly voting for the recognition of “Palestine” at the UN Security Council – but one would hope that his advisors will convince him to keep his eyes on the threat to American interests posed by the spread of radical Islam. Then again, some Arabists believe that Islamic radicalism can be curbed by forcing Israel to capitulate to Palestinian demands.

Much has been written about the partisan aspect of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Since he was invited by a Republican without first informing the president, some Democrats have suggested the goal was to embarrass the president and show that Republicans are better friends of Israel than Democrats. Democrats who choose to boycott the speech will play into this narrative even as they complain that Netanyahu is interfering in American domestic politics. Even if you interpret the speech as a way to show gratitude for Republican support, it is pure fantasy to believe this will translate into greater Jewish support for the Republican Party.

Did Netanyahu think speaking in Congress would help his reelection campaign? Perhaps, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Incumbents always blur the lines between policymaking and campaigning. When Obama ran for reelection his speeches were meant to help his campaign regardless of whether they were labeled as campaign events. Furthermore, the fact that Obama reacted so angrily, as did many other Democrats, may hurt Netanyahu’s chances if Israeli voters decide that they don’t want a prime minister who has worsened ties with their principal ally.

This is exactly what happened during the reelection campaign of Yitzhak Shamir. Like Netanyahu, Shamir supported legislation that was strongly opposed by the president. In an example of how American presidents have no hesitancy about interfering in Israeli politics, President George H.W. Bush went out of his way to let Israeli voters know that U.S.-Israel relations would suffer if Shamir was reelected. That perception was one reason Yitzhak Rabin defeated Shamir. Obama has been equally transparent in his dislike for Netanyahu and desire to see a different leader in power. If Netanyahu loses, this will probably not be a major reason, in part because Israelis recognize this president’s term will not last much longer and that the damage Obama has done to the relationship can (they hope) be reversed by his successor.

That said, Netanyahu’s decision to speak before Congress still makes little sense. In addition to angering Obama and Democrats in Congress, he has undermined the legislation that he was coming to support. Obama already threatened to veto the proposal to impose stricter sanctions on Iran and it would have been difficult to find the votes to override; now it’s probably impossible given the anger of congressional Democrats and their even greater reluctance to oppose their president on an important foreign policy issue.

The possible damage to the relationship is even less justifiable given that this legislation is toothless because (a) it provides the president with a waiver to ignore the legislation on national security grounds, which he will undoubtedly use and (b) there is no reason to expect that new sanctions will change Iranian policy.

Israel has good reason to be alarmed at the direction the nuclear talks have taken, even though it appears unlikely Iran will except any deal. On the other hand it is difficult to see what purpose the prime minister’s speech will serve since he has been sounding the same alarm now for years. His views are no secret to anyone and will have no greater impact if they are presented before Congress.

The prime minister’s speech also has an air of desperation; he apparently realizes that he cannot prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The opposition to any military strike by his own cabinet, as well as top military and intelligence officials has left him with no option but to plead with the powers to make a good deal. That predicament is cause for all Israelis to be alarmed.

Mitchell Bard, a UCLA PhD, is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka – Tevye in Palestine.


About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.