Netanyahu’s U.S. Visit
February 27, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress on March 3. The speech, orchestrated by Netanyahu and Speaker of the House John Boehner, is part of a last-ditch effort to undermine a potential framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program expected in late March. It also comes two weeks before Israel’s March 17 elections. President Obama, senior administration officials, and several Democratic lawmakers are boycotting Netanyahu’s visit. They accuse him of meddling in U.S. politics, distorting the facts of U.S.-led negotiations with Iran, and acting in a way that is “destructive” to U.S.-Israel relations. The episode marks a low point in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, threatens to make Israel a partisan issue in American politics, and tests the resiliency of U.S.-Israel ties.
Q1: Why does Netanyahu insist on addressing Congress under such controversial circumstances?
A1: Netanyahu’s speech is motivated by two intersecting objectives which will determine his political fate. First, he seeks to use the congressional address to convince lawmakers to reject an anticipated nuclear agreement with Iran which he has called “dangerous.” Netanyahu argues that he must do everything in his power to prevent a “bad” deal that would leave Iran with a nuclear weapons capability.
Second, Netanyahu faces a tough reelection battle on March 17. His strategy seeks to highlight the Iranian threat in order to deflect attention from economic issues and charges of financial mismanagement of public funds. Israel’s comptroller recently released a report blaming Netanyahu’s government for failing to address a severe housing crisis. Moreover, the Israeli attorney general is weighing whether to open a criminal investigation into whether Netanyahu used public funds to pay for private expenditures.
Q2: What is the reaction in Israel to Netanyahu’s congressional address?
A2: Netanyahu’s goal of preventing Iran from developing the capability to build a nuclear weapon and delivery system is shared across the Israeli political spectrum. Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party and Netanyahu’s chief rival in upcoming elections, opposes Netanyahu’s position on nearly every political issue. Yet he wrote in the New York Times this week that when it comes to the “Iranian nuclear threat, Israelis are one.” It is not Netanyahu’s goals on Iran but rather his strategy that triggered a wave of criticism against the prime minister in Israel.
A growing chorus of former Israeli intelligence and military chiefs, who also remain skeptical of the P5 +1 negotiations, charge that Netanyahu’s strategy ultimately undermines Israel’s security rather than strengthening it. They argue that confronting the president of the United States on such a fateful issue and playing into partisan U.S. politics risks the exact outcome that Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders are seeking to avoid with Iran. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who made waves in 2011 when he publicly criticized the idea of an Israeli military strike against Iran, reemerged as a forceful critic of Netanyahu’s strategy, calling it “destructive to the future and security of Israel.”
Q3: Is tension between Obama and Netanyahu just personal, or is there a deeper problem?
A3: It would be convenient to argue that U.S.-Israeli tension is merely the result of bad personal chemistry between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Neither leader trusts or likes the other. Their multiple meetings over the last six years have been tense and fraught with fundamental disagreement over how to address the Palestinian and Iranian issues. Despite the tension, the Obama administration recently requested $3.1 billion in military aid for Israel; Congressional support for Israel’s security remains high; and military cooperation in areas such as ballistic missile defense is unprecedented. In the six decades of U.S.-Israeli relations there have been other tense relationships and many crises that were overcome.
Still, it is difficult to remember a time when the Israeli prime minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the United States (who orchestrated the Congressional speech with Speaker of the House John Boehner) were unwelcome in the White House. The broader challenge is that Israel and the United States increasingly define their threats and interests in the Middle East differently, causing tension on a range of strategic issues. Israel is not the only country in the region whose threat perceptions have diverged significantly from that of the United States, but it faces a combination of military and diplomatic threats that make it uniquely dependent on U.S. support.
Netanyahu’s confrontation with the White House in coordination with House Republicans and his subsequent snub of Senate Democrats who requested a private meeting with the prime minister risks deepening a growing partisan divide over Israel. For the past three decades U.S. support for Israel has been bipartisan. Anything that jeopardizes that consensus undermines a foundation of the U.S.-Israel partnership and threatens a wide range of Israeli interests.
Q4: What will happen next?
A4: A lot will depend on the outcome of Israel’s upcoming election which, at this point, is too close to call. Should the left of center Zionist Camp party list form the next government, both the United States and Israel will have an opportunity to reset the partnership and move forward. Should Netanyahu win, the next two years of U.S.-Israeli cooperation are sure to be even more challenging.
Haim Malka is senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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