Why Netanyahu sees much-criticized address to Congress as a net gain

Netanyahu apparently calculated that the electoral upside from the speech outweighed the diplomatic fallout. Friday an Israeli official said Boehner's invitation had been regarded as bipartisan.

Baz Ratner/AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits at a military outpost during a visit at Mount Hermon in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights overlooking the Israel-Syria border on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be flying into a stiff political headwind next month when he lands in Washington to address a special joint session of Congress on Iran.

Political commentary in the US media has been especially critical, and some Democrats are hinting they’ll boycott the March 3 speech by the Israeli leader. At home, his political rivals in an election to be held two weeks after the address are accusing him of trashing US-Israeli diplomatic relations by siding with the Republican-controlled Congress against the Obama administration.

But Mr. Netanyahu has been undaunted, insisting Thursday that it’s his duty to travel anywhere to sound the alarm over a nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran. 

So was his acceptance of an invitation from US House Speaker John Boehner, and the corresponding snub to President Barack Obama, reckless or politically shrewd?

Netanyahu’s decision, Israeli analysts say, reflects a calculation that the electoral upside from a high-profile speech on Iran to receptive lawmakers outweighs the fallout from the uproar over the setting of yet another low point in six years of chronic estrangement between the two administrations.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, appeared Friday to acknowledge some concern the planned speech was angering Democrats, saying Speaker Boehner's invitation was presumed to have been bipartisan. But he gave no indication the prime minister was changing his plans.

In a campaign in which the opposition Labor party would like to focus the debate on socio-economic issues on which Netanyahu is vulnerable, the address to Congress allows him to keep the spotlight on his strengths: national security and his efforts to block a nuclear Iran.

“He’s smart enough to know that as long as the debate is on those issues on which he is considered to be strong, he doesn’t care. If, two weeks before the election, he is seen as defending the world and Israeli interest from Iran, it doesn’t matter if the Americans will chase him away,” says Aviv Bushinsky, who served as a spokesperson for Netanyahu during his 1990s premiership.

“He’s saying that he’s willing to get muddied by going there, because [he has] a fundamental issue, and people here will see it as an act of courage.”

Even so, it could prove a risky strategy. Israeli-US relations are seen by many here as an existential component of the country’s national security, and political analysts say that the issue has the potential to swing Israeli voters between left and right.

Criticism from former ambassador

In 1992, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Netanyahu’s Likud party lost to Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin because voters were unhappy that President George H.W. Bush had frozen some financial assistance to Israel over the building of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Now, campaign advertisements for the party of Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog are quoting commentators from Fox News – known in Israel for its friendly coverage of the prime minister – who called Netanyahu’s readiness to address Congress “a dangerous strategy.”

At an election debate hosted by the Times of Israel, Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to Washington who is now campaigning against him, said the Israeli leader had crossed a line and should deliver the speech on Iran at another venue. 

“You don’t intercede between the White House and Congress or between the two parties,’’ said Mr. Oren, who spent four and a half years in Washington and is running in a centrist party. 

For now, however, neither the criticism nor the sense of crisis has nudged the needle. In the last week, Netanyahu’s Likud moved from trailing Labor to nudging out into the lead, a seeming confirmation of his strategy. In a focus group of first-time voters conducted by the online news website Walla!, only three of 19 participants were aware of the uproar. 

“It’s a good way to show that he has a hand in affecting international relations,” said Sharon Cheetrit, a television producer living in Tel Aviv who said he voted for Netanyahu in the last election. Netanyahu “is a clever man, and I admire a clever man. It’s a devious way to earn votes of the right in Israel.”

Analysts see a new low

Relations between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations got off to a rocky start in 2009 when the US pressed Israel for a settlement freeze and the prime minister bristled in public. Then in 2010 Israel's government embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden on a visit to Israel by announcing plans for a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital. And ties frayed further in 2012, when Netanyahu hosted Republican candidate Mitt Romney in what was widely seen as an unprecedented intervention in the US presidential campaign. 

Today, with the liberal newspaper Haaretz reporting that Israeli diplomats in the US are cabling dispatches critical of the negative fallout from the planned speech, analysts say a new low in ties has been reached.

“What is happening here is almost a meltdown of the relations as we know it. Netanyahu flagrantly violated one of the most sacred fundamentals of the relationship: keeping Israel as a bipartisan issue,” says Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general to New York.

Though the estrangement of the two leaders with divergent world views isn’t expected to negate their nations' close security, defense, and economic cooperation, Mr. Pinkas warns that the contaminated ties could trickle down to other bilateral relationships. He says the visit to Congress will embolden Israeli critics within the Obama administration, and will fuel accusations that Israel’s allies in the US – particularly American Jewish groups – are pushing Washington into a more hawkish position toward Iran. To the rest of the world, it looks like Iran had driven a wedge between the allies.

Israel’s ties with the US “are a force multiplier. It’s part our deterrence,’’ Pinkas says. “By taking a crisis and making it visible to all, he’s basically saying to the world that America is not 100 percent behind Israel, and Israel is not 100 percent with America.”

Will speech ring alarm bells?

Weighing in Netanyahu’s favor politically is the fact that Israelis tend to hold President Obama in low esteem. Despite approving extra funding for Israel to build rocket interceptors that protected Israeli cities from missiles fired from Gaza, many are skeptical of his administration's approach to peacemaking and see him as naïve toward the Middle East. This lowers the political costs for Netanyahu in a head-to-head clash.

But as March 3 gets close, it’s unclear how heavily these costs may weigh on Israeli voters. US Jewish leaders have said they believe the speech is a bad idea. After the White House announced that Mr. Obama would not be meeting with Netanyahu, Mr. Biden’s attendance at the joint session also became uncertain. If Democrats make good on threats to skip the speech, the spectacle of an Israeli prime minister speaking to a Congress shorn of lawmakers might ring more alarm bells back home in Israel. 

“There comes a point where, if this March 3 speech becomes a complete fiasco, I’m not sure Israelis will view this as another time when Netanyahu is fighting for Israel against the president,” Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Chemi Shalev said in an interview with Israel’s i24 television news channel. “He may cross a line.”

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