Shimon Peres, right, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits between them during the annual ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, Israel. Photo: Gali Tibbon/AP
TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel and Hezbollah seem closer to war lately than they have in nearly a decade, yet much of the talk here last week was about another conflict, between Israel and its closest ally.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to Washington in March to address Congress about Iran’s nuclear program. His invitation, from House Speaker John Boehner, was not coordinated with the White House — highly unusual for a visiting head of state.
Administration officials called it a breach of diplomatic protocol, and quickly announced that President Barack Obama would not meet Netanyahu. A barrage of criticism followed, from congressional Democrats, Israeli politicians, a former Mossad director, even the stalwart conservatives at Fox News.
The invitation dominated the news here for days, and there was broad consensus that it would hurt Israel’s most important relationship. It has quickly become a campaign issue as well, with early elections scheduled for March 17, two weeks after the speech. Netanyahu’s center-left opponents have long accused him of alienating allies; a public feud with the White House is perfect fodder.
Yet he refuses to back down. “I will go anywhere I am invited in order to enunciate the State of Israel’s position and in order to defend its future and its existence,” he said before a cabinet meeting last Sunday.
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said the premier had a “sacred duty” to speak.
Killing a ‘bad deal’
His boss no doubt agrees. Netanyahu views any realistic deal with Tehran as a bad one, a major concession that would leave Iranian scientists close to the threshold of building a nuclear weapon. (The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said recently that Iran’s declared nuclear program is peaceful, but he could not “provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material.”)
Members of Congress, including some Democrats, have recently pushed to impose new sanctions on Iran, which would likely kill the ongoing negotiations. Obama has spent weeks lobbying them not to, and earlier this month he brought British Prime Minister David Cameron to Washington to help bolster his case. The invitation to Netanyahu is Boehner’s riposte.
The White House has been fairly muted in its public criticism, despite some angry leaks directed at Dermer. He is a longtime confidante of the prime minister, dubbed “Bibi’s brain,” and has been criticized for acting more like a political apparatchik than a diplomat. Israel’s civil service commission recently censured him for endorsing Netanyahu in a television interview, a breach of rules that bar state employees from electioneering.
Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, called the stunt inappropriate but stopped short of asking Netanyahu to cancel. “That it should be extended two weeks before an election in a country without collaboration among the leaders of Congress, and without collaboration with the White House, is not appropriate,” she told reporters on Wednesday.
There was less restraint in Israel. Two of Netanyahu’s most prominent center-left opponents, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, accused him of trashing relations with the US to improve his electoral prospects.
But the speech has also received criticism from unlikelier quarters. Dan Margalit, a columnist for the staunchly pro-Bibi newspaper Israel HaYom, urged Netanyahu to cancel his appearance.
“The behavior over the last few days created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran,” said Michael Oren, the previous Israeli ambassador in Washington and now a candidate with a new centrist party.
Even Fox News sided with Obama. “I’m shocked,” Chris Wallace said, describing the move as “wicked.” His complaint was replayed endlessly on Israeli television: if Netanyahu lost Fox News, maybe he’d really gone too far.
‘Breathing down our necks’
Despite fierce criticism in the media, however, the affair has not yet had electoral consequences for him. Project 61, an aggregator that attempts to fix Israel’s notoriously unreliable pre-election polls, gives the Zionist Camp a two-seat edge over Likud, 25 mandates to 23 — unchanged from before Boehner’s invitation.
Criticism with the White House will resonate with some Israeli voters, but Obama is deeply unpopular here. An October poll found that 53 percent of Israelis think his administration is “more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel.”
Those negative views have deepened during his six years in office, despite his decision to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the Iron Dome anti-missile system and his unwavering support for Israel at the United Nations. Right-wing candidates have complained loudly at recent campaign events about the State Department “breathing down our necks.”
The speech is also still more than a month away, and Israel has a very short-term political culture. It is hard to imagine a sizable contingent of Democrats boycotting. So the enduring image for voters will be the prime minister addressing hundreds of lawmakers in his fluent English, no doubt to rapturous applause. His last speech, in 2011, drew 29 bipartisan standing ovations. Obama’s recent State of the Union address got 13.
Less clear is whether the speech will have any impact at all on the negotiations with Iran. Netanyahu will not surprise anyone by coming out strongly against the nuclear negotiations. And Obama has had some recent success in his lobbying push: 10 hawkish Democratic senators announced on Tuesday that they would vote against any new sanctions that go to the floor before March 24.
“The Americans are already aware of Netanyahu’s position. I don’t think that if he goes and speaks it’ll change Obama’s mind. I don’t think he’ll change Congress’ position either,” said Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, at an event in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
More and more, then, the speech looks like a political miscalculation. It will not change many minds — neither lawmakers in Congress nor Israelis at the ballot box. But it has further transformed Israel into a wedge issue in Washington, breaking what for decades has been a bipartisan consensus.
“His actions bring our relationship with the Americans to an extreme point and this might extract an unbearable price from us in the future,” Dagan said. “I don’t trust the prime minister.”