Netanyahu speech to Congress: Low point in Israel-US relationship?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this week is clearly a political event, both in the United States and in Israel, impacting the two countries’ unique relationship.

Marc Sellem/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on before praying at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, Saturday Feb. 28, 2015.

"Politics stops at the water's edge," Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously declared when he chaired the Foreign Relations Committee in the late 1940s – an ideal obviously not always met since those early post-war years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress this week comes with a heavy dose of politics across global waters in both directions.

The invitation to Mr. Netanyahu came from House Speaker John Boehner, who did not consult with President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, or anyone else normally directing US diplomacy and foreign relations.

Widely seen as a snub to the Democratic White House, it came at a time when Republicans had recently increased their power in the House and Senate and were fighting administration initiatives on several fronts – including the international effort to control Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The invitation also had the potential for Speaker Boehner to strengthen his leadership position at a time when that position was threatened by a growing insurgency within his own caucus.

White House national security adviser Susan Rice called the prime minister's speech this Tuesday “destructive to the fabric of the relationship” between the two countries.

For Netanyahu’s part, the trip has been seen as a means of bolstering his position as he faces a tough election back home.

“Bibi is facing an existential threat to his career, and Boehner is staging for him the ultimate campaign rally, 6,000 miles away from home,” writes Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, using the Israeli prime minister’s nickname.

“People I’ve spoken with in Israel who have a sophisticated understanding of current campaign dynamics – the Israeli election is set for March 17 – say that a well-delivered, well-received speech (standing ovations in Congress seem very impressive unless you know better) could gain Netanyahu two or three extra seats in the Knesset, which might be what he needs to retain his job,” Mr. Goldberg writes. 

Politically, Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu had the added benefit of putting congressional Democrats in the difficult position of being players in the Republican effort to tweak the White House while cheering a nation seen to have a uniquely close and politically powerful relationship with the US.

About 30 Democrats say they will sit out the speech.

“Many of the boycotters are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who considered the invitation to Netanyahu, issued without consulting the White House, to be a breach of protocol that insulted President Barack Obama,” Politico.com reports. “Another block of Democrats say they do not want to interfere in the tense and ongoing negotiations the US and other world leaders are engaging in with Iran over its nuclear program.”

One of those boycotting the speech is Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) of Oregon. “I will not dignify it by being here,” he said. “It is an unfortunate incursion into Israeli politics.”

"I intend to go, and I’ll listen respectfully," Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Sunday on CNN. "I don’t intend to jump up and down."

As he left Jerusalem for Washington Sunday, Netanyahu described himself as an “emissary of … the entire Jewish people,” a statement Sen. Feinstein (who is Jewish) said she finds “arrogant.”

"He doesn't speak for me on this," she said. 

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, said Netanyahu was "crossing some lines that haven't been crossed before and is putting Israel into the partisan crossfire in a way it has not been before."

But the largest pro-Israel lobby in the US, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has tried to play down the partisanship.

"AIPAC welcomes the prime minister's speech to Congress and we believe that this is a very important address," spokesman Marshall Wittmann said. "We have been actively encouraging senators and representatives to attend and we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from both sides of the aisle."

Netanyahu is scheduled to speak Monday at AIPAC's annual policy conference, the day before his congressional appearance. 

As the time for Netanyahu’s arrival in the US approached, both sides in what has become a prickly relationship appeared to soften the rancor.

In remarks on Saturday at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Netanyahu said: “I would like to take this opportunity to say that I respect US President Barack Obama.” The strength of the US-Israel relationship “will prevail over differences of opinion, those in the past and those yet to come,” he said.

Speaking on ABC Sunday, Secretary of State Kerry said, "The prime minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the United States, obviously, and we have a closer relationship with Israel right now in terms of security than at any time in history."

“We don't want to see this turned into some great political football,” he said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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