Dana Busgang, Goucher College:
In early January, news broke that Speaker of the House and Republican congressman from Ohio’s 8th district John Boehner, had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This is not the first time that Netanyahu, whom some have come to refer to as the Republican Senator from Israel, has addressed Congress. In fact, in 2011, Netanyahu received 29 standing ovations during his address, which is more than President Obama received during his State of the Union address that same year.
However, this time, things are a bit different. First, unlike previous speeches to Congress where Netanyahu sought to strengthen his positions on issues involving the Palestinians, this address was aimed at Iran. Specifically, it was aimed at de-railing the current Obama led Geneva negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program through sponsoring a Republican lead bill to impose harsher sanctions on Iran should the talks fall apart. Second, neither the Obama administration nor the democratic leadership was consulted regarding Netanyahu’s visit. This unprecedented move has some crying unconstitutionality, referring to the President’s constitutional right to host foreign ministers. Regardless, 58 members of Congress skipped the speech, Vice President Joe Biden was notably absent over Netanyahu’s left shoulder, and President Obama did not meet with the Israeli PM at all during his visit. Finally, the speech came just two weeks before the much-anticipated Israeli elections, where Netanyahu will face off with some stiff competition. Some consider the speech as nothing more then electioneering by Mr. Netanyahu, who receives a considerable amount of campaign funds from donors in the US. One of the primary reasons President Obama declined meeting with the Israeli PM is because he thought it would be inappropriate; it could be seen as an American President meddling in Israeli politics, in contrast to Netanyahu’s complete willingness to interfere in US politics.
The speech was delivered on the morning of Tuesday, March 3rd to a joint session of Congress, minus the aforementioned members who declined to attend. Overall, Netanyahu did not offer anything but fear mongering and overstatement. He emphasized the threat that Iran plays to Israel, re-enforced the strong relationship between the US and Israel, and encouraged the US to walk away from the current negotiations that he claimed are “paving” Iran’s path to the bomb. He painted Iran as both a global, terror supporting super power, and as a weak regime on the verge of collapse. While he called the deal that Obama is working on a “bad deal,” he offered no alternative except to impose tougher sanctions, and wait until regime change or complete collapse occurs. While he never outright suggested military action, it was implicit in the entire address, as the correct way to stop Iran’s advance towards the bomb. He did not mention the occupation of Palestine (which arguably poses a greater threat to Israel’s future than Iran does) once.
One of the most notable responses to Netanyahu’s speech came from House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a long time Israel supporter, who was noticeably distraught throughout the speech. In a statement released afterwards, Pelosi claimed she was “near tears” throughout the speech, and was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States.” Meanwhile, President Obama noted that Netanyahu offered “nothing new.”
However, an interesting response came from former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, who called Netanyahu’s claim that Iran is one year away from developing a bomb “bull****.” He also made it clear that in his opinion, Netanyahu’s speech did nothing more than isolate Israel further.
The ultimate question regarding Netanyahu’s address to congress is what did it accomplish in terms of domestic Israeli politics, US domestic politics, and what its affect on US-Israel relations is. In terms of the upcoming Israeli elections, despite a small bump in the polls after the speech, Netanyahu’s Likud party still trails to the Zionist Union, headed by Netanyahu’s main challenger, Isaac Herzog. On Saturday night, tens of thousands of Israeli’s gathered to protest in Tel Aviv, in what many are considering to be an anti-Netanyahu demonstration. So if this speech was an attempt by Netanyahu to boost his domestic popularity in a last minute bid to retain his place at the helm of Israeli leadership, he seems to have failed (although the true test will be on March 17th with the Israeli elections).
In the US, the speech didn’t seem to change much, except providing to be an embarrassment for Boehner and the GOP leadership. Just two hours after Netanyahu’s speech, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that he would postpone the vote on the new sanctions on Iran. What the speech did manage to do is push the US’ relationship with the state of Israel farther towards partisanship, widening the rift between democratic leadership and Netanyahu. However, as Obama’s continued commitment to a strong relationship with Israel despite his personal disagreements with the current Prime Minister, or Israel’s disregard for American calls for a settlement freeze demonstrates, the ties between the two countries go beyond these two men. In 2016, when a new American president is elected, and as soon as two weeks, when there will most likely be a new Israeli Prime Minister, this odd moment in the seemingly unbreakable bond between these two countries will amount to nothing more than a footnote.