Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will step into the mire of American partisan politics Tuesday when he addresses the Republican-dominated Congress. He is expected to make a forceful appeal to pull back on a landmark nuclear accord with Iran, one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s most important foreign policy initiatives, the Post’s Jen Gerson writes. The move threatens the already frosty relationship between the two leaders and could flare into an all-out diplomatic melodrama.
Why is the speech such a big deal?
The speech itself is less of an issue than the diplomatic tensions it has revealed. Mr. Netanyahu accepted the Republican-dominated Congress’s invitation to speak without going through the White House, which puts him at odds with Mr. Obama, the president of Israel’s strongest financial and political ally.
“There’s nothing in the recent history of American-Israeli relations like this,” said David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Middle East Program of the Washington-based Wilson Center. He compares the episode to the falling-out between Menachem Begin and Ronald Reagan over the sale of surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. “We haven’t seen anything like this for decades,” he added. “Neither seems to be backing down. It’s the end of the relationship for the rest of the Obama administration, between Obama and Netanyahu.”
Why is Mr. Obama so angry?
The two men have never got on. The bad blood “goes back almost to the beginning of his administration; in his first term Mr. Obama tried to launch negotiations on the Palestinian issue, and Netanyahu and his supporters began building settlements on the West Bank,” Mr. Ottaway said.
There are also ideological divisions between the right-leaning Mr. Netanyahu and the more liberal U.S. president. Mr. Obama has long taken a more conciliatory tone toward Iran, stating his willingness to build bridges with the rogue state. Israel has opposed this position, seeing a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence.
Further, Mr. Netanyahu is inserting himself into a deeply polarized political environment. Mr. Obama faces incredible opposition in Congress, and has increasingly resorted to his executive authority to push any kind of mandate forward. He hopes the coming accord with Iran will be one of his key foreign policy successes, even though Mr. Netanyahu fears it would put Iran on the verge of becoming a nuclear-armed state. The Israeli PM’s speech is a breach of protocol and an open show of public disrespect, but if his argument is convincing, he may increase public and political pressure on an increasingly beleaguered U.S. president.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images) Things have always been frosty between Netanyahu and Obama, but the Israeli prime minister’s speech to Congress could effectively sever the relationship between the two men.
Why are American-Jewish groups concerned?
The U.S. has offered nearly unflinching moral support and financial aid to Israel since the 1960s, one of the few hallmarks of U.S. foreign policy that maintains strong bipartisan support. A shift from the Israeli side that favours or appeals to Republicans may put this relationship at risk under future Democratic administrations.
In fact, that seems to be happening already. This week, Susan Rice, Mr, Obama’s national security advisor, said Mr. Netanyahu’s speech would be “destructive to the fabric of the relationship … it’s always been bipartisan. We need to keep it that way.” Thursday, Israel lobby group J Street ran full-page ads in U.S. newspapers, criticizing Mr. Netanyahu for scheduling his speech to Congress during his re-election campaign in Israel. “Prime Minister Netanyahu: Congress Isn’t a Prop for Your Election Campaign,” the ads said.
Some American Jews are siding with the Israeli prime minister. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel bought full-page ads urging Americans to re-consider their rapprochement with Iran: “Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?”
Who will boycott the speech?
Mr. Obama will be a no-show, along with at least 30 Democratic lawmakers. Vice President Joe Biden will also be skipping it, even though it is customary for the man who also holds the title of president of the Senate to sit behind heads of state when they address Congress.
What will be the impact on Israeli elections?
The polls show Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party in a tight race with a more liberal coalition, the Zionist Union. While a local newspaper poll found a majority of Israelis supports his position on Iran, a slim majority opposes his speech to Congress – ostensibly on the grounds it may harm relations with the U.S. Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition Labor Party, part of the coalition, has made hay of the uncertainty. “I call on Netanyahu again: Stop. Enough, Bibi, enough. You aren’t going. Don’t go. You will cause strategic damage to Israel’s standing and to the relationship with the United States,” he said this week, accusing him of “playing politics inside American politics.”