Speech bubble

  • Strong Israel
    Stickers of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a conference to launch the Likud party’s campaign in Russian, at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. The stickers read: “A big Likud a strong Israel” | REUTERS
  • Netanyahu knows that if a large number of Democratic senators and Congressmen stay away from his speech, it will be a major defeat for him and his country.

  • In a survey conducted by the Army Radio, 47 per cent of respondents said Netanyahu should cancel the speech and 19 per cent said the speech controversy has reduced the chances of them supporting him.

A day after Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel for the first time, The New York Times carried an article on him with the headline ‘The American Premier’. Although the June 1, 1996 article doubted Netanyahu’s Americanism to be a facade, it admitted that he looked no different from a quintessential American politician. He had spent several years in the US, graduated from a Philadelphia high school, took his degrees from MIT, spent some time at Harvard and got married twice while he was in the US. He once even changed his name to Ben Nitay so that it sounded American. Yet, two decades later, the sure-footed Netanyahu finds himself in a bind over his decision to speak at a joint session of the US Congress on March 3. The move has split both American and Israeli politics right down the middle.

Trouble started after House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, decided to invite Netanyahu to talk to the Congress, keeping President Barack Obama in the dark. While the Congress is not legally required to check with the White House on such matters, history and protocol point to consultation with the White House or the state department. Several Democrats have accused the Republican leadership of deliberately showing disrespect to the president on account of partisan politics.

Israel, however, has always enjoyed bipartisan support in the US. Even today, although the Democrats are furious about the perceived slight to the president, only a few of them have come out in the open criticising the move. Yet, nearly 20 House Democrats have written to Boehner asking him to postpone the speech. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who is the senior most member of the chamber, said he would boycott the speech. Vice President Joe Biden also said he would miss the address because of unspecified foreign travel. As president of the Senate, he would have typically attended the joint session.

What irked most Democrats and other critics of the speech is the timing and the likely content. Israel is going to parliamentary polls on March 17 and Netanyahu is likely to use the joint session as a platform to influence voters back home. This was a point raised by Obama, too, while making it clear that he would not be granting Netanyahu an audience while the Israeli PM was in the US. He openly alluded to it while hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on February 9 and said it was customary not to meet a foreign leader close to an election in his country. “As much as I love Angela, if her election were two weeks away, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House,” said Obama.

Another important reason for the White House and the Democrats to oppose the speech is its most likely subject matter. Netanyahu is sure to criticise the nuclear talks conducted by the Obama administration with Iran on its nuclear weapons. Obama has given Iran time until end of March for a deal. Netanyahu is staunchly opposed to the talks and he has the support of the Republicans on the issue. He hopes his address to the joint session will win him wider support. “These days, in Munich, a bad agreement is being reached with Iran that will endanger the existence of Israel. As prime minister, it is my duty to do everything I can to prevent this agreement, and I must go to Washington to present Israel’s position to Congress and the American people,” said Netanyahu. Boehner is in agreement. “There’s a message that the American people need to hear, and I think he’s the perfect person to deliver it,” he said.

Obama, however, seems determined to go ahead with the talks. He said there was no rush to cancel the talks and impose sanctions “unless your view is that it’s not possible to get a deal with Iran and it shouldn’t even be tested. And that I cannot agree with,” said the president.

Senator John McCain, former Republican presidential candidate and chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said his party was not confident about the negotiations with Iran. “We believe they have already given away, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, too much,” he said. “That’s why we want to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

For the Republicans, it is an easy choice to make. They are all likely to toe the line of Boehner and McCain since nearly all of their constituents, funders and supporters are hardcore Israel supporters. “As far as the Republicans are concerned, I suspect that they will not break ranks. Most of them see this an an opportunity to embarrass the president and to signal their unwavering commitment to Israel in general and the Netanyahu regime in particular,” said Sumit Ganguly, who teaches political science at the University of Indiana at Bloomington.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are on a sticky wicket. A growing number of Democratic supporters, especially the liberals and progressives, are turning increasingly critical of Israel, its expansionist settlement policy, its increasing affinity for the one-nation theory and its treatment of the minority Arabs and Palestinians. Liberal groups are now forcing many Democratic leaders to show their opposition to the speech. Such disaffection has forced several Democratic lawmakers to approach Israeli ambassador to the US, Rod Dermer, to find a way out from the address at the joint session.

Back in Israel, too, there is no overwhelming support for the speech. Opposition leaders have accused Netanyahu of using the platform to boost his chances at winning re-election. Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog said the controversy that surrounded the speech had taken the focus away from the Iranian nuclear programme and has done more damage to the bipartisan consensus in the US on Israel.

The Israeli public opinion is also not so heart-warming for Netanyahu. In a survey conducted by the Army Radio, 47 per cent of respondents said Netanyahu should cancel the speech and 19 per cent said the speech controversy has reduced the chances of them supporting him.

What makes Netanyahu’s position even more weak is the fact that staunch pro-Israel groups like the Anti-Defamation League, an international organisation dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, has urged him to cancel the speech. Abrahm Foxman, the group’s national director, said while he accepted the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear programme, the speech has now turned into a circus and that Netanyahu should stay at home.

Netanyahu knows that if a large number of Democratic senators and Congressmen stay away from his speech, it will be a major defeat for him and his country. A veteran of many battles, he knows the pitfalls of defeat. He could be thinking of a number of options, like keeping his address low key and behind closed doors or choosing another venue for his speech, like the American Israel Public Action Committee. He could also win the March 17 elections and make a triumphant return to the Capitol. All these options appear much better than the hole he has dug for himself at present.

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