Controversy Surrounds Netanyahu’s Scheduled Visit to the U.S.

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The White House has made it clear that it does not approve of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s scheduled speech to the U.S Congress early next month. Coming in the midst of ongoing high-level negotiations between the United States and Iran, Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. is seen by some as an attempt to undermine such efforts by putting public pressure on President Barack Obama. The Israeli opinion on this matter appears to be divided, with some urging the prime minister on, while others suggesting Prime Minister Netanyahu ought not to visit the U.S. so close to Israeli elections, nor should he risk raising the ire of the U.S. president.

In an op-ed for the Forward, David Hazony presents a series of arguments for why Mr. Netanyahu should go forward with the speech, suggesting that what is finally decided about Iran’s nuclear program will have an impact beyond the involved parties: “Support for Israel and concern about Iran are not partisan affairs on Capitol Hill. We can easily understand the difficulty many Democrats may have in supporting Netanyahu’s speech when it has become such a public relations mess. But that doesn’t mean they won’t applaud his words….given that what is decided in this negotiation affects not just Americans but also the whole world, does it still make sense that Netanyahu should not speak before Congress as a deal starts to come together? Even at the risk of upsetting some protocol sticklers and those who believe in pristine relations at all costs, should the prime minister really not be allowed to make his case on the grandest possible stage?…Let’s put aside politics and hear him out. We just might learn something.”

Jerusalem Post’s Martin Sherman also urges support for Mr. Netanyahu’s visit, taking aim in particular at domestic political actors who, according to Sherman, are putting politics before their country: “despite the dictates of reason and national interest, quite the opposite has taken place. Instead of uniting behind the nation’s elected leader’s endeavor to thwart the conclusion of what increasingly appears to be a perilously ill-advised deal with Tehran’s tyrannical theocracy, the invitation to speak has been exploited to generate sharp division in the country. Domestic opposition to Netanyahu’s acceptance of the invitation falls into two broad categories. The first is that it will create friction with the White House, thus undermining Israel’s ‘greatest strategic asset,’ its relationship with the United States. The second is that it is a cynical maneuver to gain unfair advantage in the March election. Both must be disregarded; both are inappropriate and/or disingenuous.”

Interestingly, in a recent poll, most Israelis believe that it is President Obama who is trying to peddle his influence in Israel’s domestic politics, with the upcoming elections for the Knesset just around the corner: “Twice as many Israeli’s say that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is interfering in the election as those who say it is not, according to a Panels Research poll taken for The Jerusalem Post and its Hebrew sister publication, Maariv Sof Hashavua….A majority of respondents, 56%, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is correct in principle in his desire to address Congress on the Iranian nuclear threat, while 36% said he is not right, and 8% had no opinion.”

Still, there are plenty of voices both within Israel who either feel the visit to the U.S. is not worth the risk. For example, Arutz Sheva’s Avi Perry believes that given the controversy surrounding his visit, Prime Minister Netanyahu is making a mistake by going forward with it: “Can you imagine a Netanyahu speech to the joint session of Congress where the “joint” part is an illusion, since the Democrats will be “too busy to attend”? What will that half empty chamber look like? How will his message be received, be remembered? … Once Netanyahu’s visit appeared to be a Republican political ploy, politics took precedence over the democrats’ sense of right and wrong. They opted for a political victory over the Speaker and his congressional Republicans….I can’t stop Netanyahu from making a mistake. I do like him….Unfortunately, he listens to his advisors and others who prefer becoming martyrs, because they believe that being right is more important than being smart and effective.”

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Eytan Gilboa feels Mr. Netanyahu is damaging Israel’s national interests by creating a rift among Israel’s erstwhile allies in the U.S. Congress: “Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint session of Congress on the subject of the Iranian nuclear talks is a serious error of judgment. Not only has it caused a further deterioration in his already shaky relationship with Barack Obama, but it has also led to a rift between Israel and the Democratic Party; embarrassment for the American Jewish community, most of whom are members and supporters of the Democratic Party; a severe blow to the Israeli lobby in Washington, which relies on bipartisan support and the Jewish community and the undermining of the status of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer….The moment the planned address turned into a political and partisan issue between Obama and the Republican Congress, and between the Republican and the Democratic congressional leaders, its efficacy, already in doubt, dissipated.”

Others, like Ben-Dror Yemini think that one of the reasons why the prime minister ought to stay put is “precisely because the Iranian threat is so important, precisely because you are right, precisely because the things you are planning to say at the U.S. Congress are important – don’t go. Because this trip will impair the exact issue that you are traveling on behalf of….With all due respect to the Republican majority in the Congress, the clauses of the agreement with Iran will be determined by the administration, not by the Congress. That’s who you should address. That’s who you should warn. That’s where you need to have a good, direct and real relationship. Because that’s where the decisions are made.”

Similarly, Orly Azoulay feels that the optics and the noise surrounding the visit should be enough to convince Mr. Netanyahu to cancel his visit: “At this juncture, Netanyahu must make a decision not as a politician, but as a statesman who recognizes what’s good for his country….The wandering circus in Washington surrounding the visit is bad for Israel. The argument over Iran’s nuclear program has become irrelevant: Netanyahu’s visit will be characterized by background noises, and not the message he seeks to give….This visit was born in sin, and the punishment will follow. Obama has two years left in his tenure, and during this period, Netanyahu will not see the inside of the White House.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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