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Netanyahu's Speech Before Congress

22 February 2015

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Next week Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to speak to a joint session of the US Congress. Never has there been such a tense political atmosphere between the White House and the Israeli government over such an appearance. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House May admitted to having invited Netanyahu to speak but coordination with the White House was lacking. Lining up bi-partisan support beforehand was crucial as was the exact date for the speech. The content of the PM's speech is well known – he will be warning against the impending agreement between Iran and the US administration as concerns Tehran's nuclear program. There appears to be little doubt the Americans and European negotiators will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state, the implication being that the Iranians will attain nuclear weapons at their time and choosing several years after an agreement. The term "nuclear threshold" means the Iranians will be allowed to develop their project to a point of two to three months from the actual assembly of a nuclear device.

The PM and Israel have every reason to be worried and it is Netanyahu's responsibility to make Israel's position clear, making all the best moves to ensure the country's security. But by playing politics and so totaling alienating the Obama Administration even the most legitimate of policy initiatives can back-fire. Besides certain Democratic members of congress declaring themselves "no shows" the latest news includes a possible boycott by the White House of the largest pro-Israel lobbying organization, AIPAC. And lest we all forget, the president and his team make foreign policy, not Congress.

The solution was a very simple one. Netanyahu could have coordinated with Boehner to speak to a joint session of the House and Senate several days after the Israeli elections (scheduled for March 17). Boehner would have informed the White House and Obama would have been extremely hard pressed to object. To show true statesmanship in a spirit of national unity Netanyahu would take the Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog with him in a show of Israeli resolve in the face of what appears to be an American administration capitulation to Iranian nuclear demands with the resulting policy objective of Israel's destruction. The Democrats would have seen the merit in such an approach especially since many are pro-Israel and do not trust the Iranians any more than most Israelis. A nuclear Iran is an existential issue to much of the Middle East and in particular Israel, not one to use for political gain.

Unfortunately Netanyahu is not a statesman, but an overly successful politician. By butting heads with the Obama Administration he is strengthening his political base at home in the hope of gaining more Knesset seats. This is at the expense of Israel's relationship with an administration widely viewed as much less pro-Israel than the previous two presidents. From the outset in 2009 Obama initiated outreach to the Muslim World, most notably to Erdogan's Turkey and later to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi (2012-13). An accommodation with Iran is perceived as more important than full American-Israeli strategic cooperation. This is not to say the agreement with Iran will be at any price, but the cost may be prohibitively high for Israel.

Netanyahu is too much of a politician for his and Israel's own good. Where there could have been a grand coalition demanding a prudent foreign policy protecting Israel's and by extension western and moderate Arab interests (the Gulf States in particular) there quite possibly is now even more of a determination to reach an accord with Tehran. Sec. of State John Kerry continues to insist America will not accept a bad accord and that the negotiations will not be extended indefinitely. Most believe America will cut a deal even should it be detrimental to the West, Israel and the moderate Arab states.

Finally Netanyahu forgets that Israel needs good relations with the Democrats no less than the Republicans. Outwardly hoping for a Republican presidential and congressional victory in 2016 is zero statesmanship. It is viewed as serious intervention in American politics and in the end undermines Israel's standing throughout the US. The Americans are still Israel's #1 ally. For all the complaining about US policy and the Obama White House there are no options for a replacement ally anytime in the foreseeable future nor a new president in the White House for the next two years.

It is doubtful whether Israel can win a head on collision with the US when other options were available. Secondly, Netanyahu's playing partisan politics over such a crucial issue will have long lasting ramifications both in Israel and in Washington.

 

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