Unpacking the ‘high-stakes game’ of Netanyahu’s Congress speech

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses voters from the Russian-speaking community on Monday, Feb. 9. Credit: Gili Yaari/Flash90.

 

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he remains “determined” to give his March 3 address before a joint session of Congress on the dangers of a nuclear Iran and radical Islam, the stakes surrounding the controversial speech continue to rise.

The speech, which has drawn sharp criticism from the Obama administration, has left Democratic members of Congress and American Jewish leaders facing a difficult scenario: they can choose to support Netanyahu’s plans and by extension, Israel’s use of any means at its disposal to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, but doing so would mean defying the White House.

“American Jewish leaders are in a bind,” Dan Diker, senior Middle East analyst at the Israel-based International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and former secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, told JNS.org. “They’re being forced to deal with the perceived problem of dual loyalty, and no Jewish American ever wants to be in that position.” 

Vice President Joe Biden’s office announced last week that travel plans would preclude Biden from attending Netanyahu’s address. At least a handful of Democratic lawmakers have said that they will also skip the speech, and others such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are mulling whether or not to attend. Leading Congressional advocates for increased sanctions against Iran have delayed a vote on new sanctions until March 24 at the earliest—a week after Israel’s national elections. Some prominent American Jewish leaders, including Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Anti-Defamation League President Abraham Foxman, have called for Netanyahu to cancel the speech. The J Street lobby launched an online petition headlined, “I’m a Jew. Bibi does NOT speak for me!”

On Monday, the Zionist Organization of America responded to Jewish-organizational critics of the Netanyahu speech, calling out those organizations in a press release and saying, “The United States Congress is discussing the Iran situation now. Prime Minister Netanyahu must speak now. … By not supporting Israel’s prime minister and Congress, we are sending a terrible message to Iran that we are not unified and strong in our resolve against this deadly enemy.”

“What Prime Minister Netanyahu has to say is vitally important to ensure that any deal [with world powers] does not hand Tehran the prize they covet—the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear device, with an end to sanctions,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JNS.org. “We hope that steps will be taken that will defuse the controversy about the venue of the speech, so that its message can be heard.”

Critics of the speech say that if Netanyahu goes ahead with it, he risks alienating Israel’s bipartisan support in the American legislature and will face incessant attacks from his opposition as well as the media in the run-up to elections. On the other hand, if he cancels the speech, he risks losing support from his traditional voter base, a group that is critical of the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel.  Canceling the address may also negate an important opportunity for the prime minister to directly lobby Congress to pass tough sanctions legislation against Iran.

“It’s a high-stakes game,” Diker told JNS.org.

The latest reports indicate that instead of addressing a nationally televised joint session of Congress, Netanyahu is considering the possibility of either giving a closed-door session to members of Congress, or only giving his other scheduled speech—at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, which is attended by about 15,000 Israel supporters, including numerous members of the House of Representative and the Senate.

“The prime minister understands that there’s a price to pay for any high-stakes decision with regard to countering the Iranian threat, and the price here could be steep, but it is ultimately up to the prime minister to make the calculation as to how high a price Israel should be willing to pay to effectively warn the state of Israel’s greatest ally on the dangers of a nuclear Iran,” Diker said.

Diker believes it is troubling that the speech has turned into a partisan policy debate. Israel has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, particularly on issues that are critical to its security, such as funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system.

“If the prime minister’s opting to go ahead with the speech determines that Democrats would decide not to back a sanctions bill against one of the most severe national security threats the world has known in the past several decades, that would be a very sad state of affairs,” Diker said.

“If the prime minister is convinced that Israel, as the nationstate of the Jewish people, is in mortal danger due to a historically disastrous deal between Western alliances and Iran, it is his sacred duty to sound the alarm, and that alarm rings most clearly in the American Congress, which is probably the most sympathetic collective ear Israel has in the world,” added Diker.

While Netanyahu’s supporters argue that the speech has everything to do with trying to prevent world powers, led by the U.S., from signing a nuclear deal with Iran that could grant it the time it needs to cross the nuclear threshold, some in Israel and the U.S. are accusing the prime minister of using the speech as a ploy to increase his chances of being re-elected in what polls currently show as a close race.

“I think this is more about getting elected then anything else,” Israeli political pollster Mitchell Barak, currently the head of Keevoon Global Research and a past spokesman for former Israeli president Shimon Peres, told JNS.org. “But I do think that the prime minister is deeply committed to the Iranian issue. I think that is one of his most important issues, but I think that the timing and the way this speech was conceived was to maximize the electoral and political gain during the campaign.”

Polls have shown modest gains for Netanyahu since the speech was first announced and the diplomatic fallout began, but Barak said any electoral gains that the prime minister is recording may not come without a price.

“I think the speech has already boomeranged,” said Barak. “Netanyahu could have done this more wisely. The timing was off.”

For instance, Barak suggested, Netanyahu “could have first accepted an invitation to speak at AIPAC, and then started making meetings in Washington, starting by contacting the president, then the secretary of state, and then Congress. Then there may not have been so much antagonism.”

Barak explained that when a head of state visits Israel, or if a head of Israel visits another country, there is a committee within the Prime Minister’s Office, the President’s Office, or the Foreign Ministry that plans the entire trip in advance before announcing the visit. Announcing the speech before gauging the reaction of Obama—whose administration has proceeded to magnify the speech into a diplomatic incident—was both “a failure of diplomacy on the ground in Washington and a failure of the diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office,” Barak said.

“By accepting the invitation from Speaker John Boehner, Bibi has driven a wedge in between Israel and supporters, which is never a good thing,” he said. “Biden’s statement that he will not attend Netanyahu’s speech reaffirms that this is one of the greatest diplomatic blunders the prime minister has committed.”

Diker, on the other hand, called it “virtually incomprehensible for any foreign leader to refuse an invitation from the third-most powerful leader in the American governmental structure (Boehner).”

Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota congresswoman and presidential candidate, believes Netanyahu’s speech is an unselfish move specifically because it comes during Israel’s election season.

“For Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to the United States now, in the midst of his election, demonstrates to me a personal sacrifice on his part,” Bachmann told JNS.org. “This doesn’t represent at all to me a self-aggrandizing move. I believe that this was a sacrifice on his part to state to the world Israel’s vulnerability and current situation of being under attack, particularly from Iran, with Iran attacking Israel through Hezbollah, through Hamas, through Bashar al-Assad from Syria.”

At the same time, while Congressional Democrats question whether to support Israel at the risk of opposing the president, and vice versa, the conundrum for American Jewish leaders runs deeper.

“The dilemma facing American Jewish leaders is a dilemma of identity and politics,” Diker said. “Can they accept the fact that the leader of the nation state of the Jewish people has to accept an invitation by their own Congress in order to sound the alarm of danger on Iran? Or do they support their own president, whose policies stand in opposition to Israel—whose founding raison d’être is to defend the Jewish people from existential threats?”

—With reporting by Jacob Kamaras and Sean Savage

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Posted on February 10, 2015 and filed under Israel, News, U.S..