Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The "Unbreakable" Bond: Netanyahu's Gamble

By Christopher ChoPublished February 20, 2015

Washington's steadfast support for Israel has, for decades, been a hallmark of American foreign policy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, appears willing to test that commitment, accepting a controversial invitation to address a joint session of Congress on Iran. The reaction on Capitol Hill"”a bona fide political firestorm"”may be a sign that Israeli premier has overplayed his hand.
By Christopher Cho, 02/20/15

A political firestorm has erupted in Washington since Israeli Prime Minister Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu accepted House Speaker John Boehner's invitation to address a joint session of Congress on Iran. The offer—extended without consultation from the White House or the State Department—represents a significant breach of diplomatic tradition and has stirred passions on both sides of the aisle. The Executive Branch, for one, has made no secret of its exasperation, a sentiment echoed by top lawmakers and pro-Israel lobbyists alike. With Democrats bristling and observers skeptical, it seems that the Israeli premier may have overplayed his hand. Indeed, the benefits Netanyahu feels he may reap from his actions, whatever they may be, do not outweigh the tangible costs of jeopardizing Israel's most important alliance.

Netanyahu's defiant attitude stems, in part, from considerations on an international stage. The Obama Administration, along with the world powers of P5+1, is edging towards a comprehensive agreement that will restrict, although not eliminate, Iran's capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons. Tehran, furthermore, has signaled an openness to compromise. Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of such terms, which he considers an existential threat to Israel. The Israeli premier, it appears, hopes to use his controversial speech to articulate his position and rally Congress in support of fresh sanctions against Iran.

Yet Netanyahu's speech may have the opposite effect. Already, his scheduled appearance has polarized Congressional lawmakers, undermining the previously bipartisan support for sanctions against Iran. Wavering ranks of Democrats have rallied around the president and prominent Democratic leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), have opted to skip the "tawdry and high-handed" address altogether. Indeed, Boehner's invitation is widely interpreted as a partisan effort to enlist Netanyahu as an advocate of the right-wing agenda. 

At home, the backlash has been no less formidable. Netanyahu's critics have urged the prime minister to cancel his visit. Many have cited the proximity of his congressional appearance on March 3 to the Israeli elections, accusing Netanyahu's scheduled speech as a thinly veiled effort to garner extra votes at the expense of Israel's relations with the United States. Even pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington have condemned Netanyahu's decision. For instance, J-Street and the Anti-Defamation League have called the speech inflammatory, campaigning to have it postponed until after the Israeli elections. 

The growing rift between President Obama and his Israeli counterpart has been no secret to political spectators. Israel itself, however, has enjoyed consistent and overwhelming support in Congress. In fact, within the two years, the House of Representatives have passed significant Israel-related bills, such as the Israel Qualitative Military Edge Enhancement Act and the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, with enormous majorities, serving as a testament to the unique American commitment to Israeli security. 

All things considered, Netanyahu's decision to accept Boehner's invitation is simply short-sighted. He has chosen, in effect, to capitalize on a single opportunity at the expense of something incomparably greater: upsetting Capitol Hill's bipartisan support for Israel. It has become increasingly plausible, particularly with his meddling in the 2012 election, among other things, that Netanyahu is casting his lot with Republican majorities in a toxic, polarizing gamble. 

It's no surprise, then, that the Boehner-Netanyahu arrangement reeks of recklessness and illegitimacy. Moreover, the controversy and backlash will certainly overshadow and detract from whatever message the prime minister attempts to convey. Netanyahu knows very well that, in an age of growing European antipathy, he cannot afford alienate Israel's foremost backer. What's more, he must realize that the U.S.-Israel relationship is between two countries, not Likud—Netanyahu's center-right party—and the Republicans. Put simply, Netanyahu should cancel, or at the very least postpone, his ill-timed trip to Washington.