Should Netanyahu address Congress?

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Presumably, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed his options carefully before accepting U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address the joint session of Congress. There is no doubt that the bulk of Congress, including many Democrats, are angered with President Barack Obama for ignoring their concerns in his obsession to reach a deal with the Iranians – at any cost. He has already demonstrated his willingness to enable Iran to become a threshold nuclear state. Thus, many members of Congress would be keen to hear Netanyahu’s views, which Boehner undoubtedly hopes will strengthen the resolve of Congress to ramp up sanctions if no deal is achieved by the June deadline.

Netanyahu’s acceptance unleashed a firestorm, both at home and in the U.S. Infuriated unnamed White House officials told Haaretz, “We thought we’d seen everything but Bibi managed to surprise even us.” This was a breach of protocol in which “he spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency and that there will be a price.” Another official said it would be difficult to trust Netanyahu in the future and accused him of “preferring to advance his political interests” rather than “maintaining the correct working relationship between both countries.”

However, Boehner subsequently revealed on CBS’s “60 minutes” that the White House had in fact been notified before the announcement of the Netanyahu visit, suggesting that the White House rage was less about the breach of protocol and more its concern that Netanyahu would undermine Obama’s policies of appeasement toward Iran.

The White House announced that ‘in accordance with standard tradition’, it was inappropriate for the president or the secretary of state to meet Netanyahu two weeks before Israeli national elections. This is inconsistent with the fact that that on April 30, 1996, one month before the elections (in which Netanyahu was victorious), then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres met with President Bill Clinton in the White House.

Israeli opposition leaders were hysterical. Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog told Israel Army Radio that Netanyahu was “directly harming the president of the United States” and “what Netanyahu is doing with this thuggish behavior is to harm Israel’s security interests.” Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid expressed similar sentiments. There were even suggestions that the state comptroller should investigate the propriety of the Israeli embassy facilitating the broadcast of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress without the approval of the White House.

Despite the fact that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been energetically lobbying Congress to intensify sanctions against Iran, the American Jewish establishment – which has failed to react to Obama’s frequent biased and offensive statements and initiatives – was clearly distressed that Netanyahu had become an issue between Congress and the White House, but largely remained silent.

However, the Anti-Defamation League’s head, Abe Foxman, could not contain himself. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “this looks like a political challenge to the White House and/or a campaign effort in Israel.” He said, “The invitation and acceptance is ill advised” and had the chutzpah to tell Boehner to withdraw his invitation and urged Netanyahu to rescind his acceptance. Foxman’s outrageous and harmful remarks were met with deafening silence by other Jewish bodies and publicly condemned only by the hawkish Zionist Organization of America.

Our prime minister has certainly embarked on a risky enterprise. Many fear that a vindictive Obama could exact payback when it comes to employing the veto at the U.N. Security Council or at the International Criminal Court where the Palestinian Authority is seeking to charge Israel with war crimes. He may intensify the pressures on Israel to withdraw to the indefensible 1949 armistice lines and increase pressure against construction in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. It is feared that he could even reduce the crucial U.S. defense support to Israel.

This is possible. But the reality is that Obama’s attitude toward Netanyahu is so toxic that it probably makes little difference how Netanyahu would act. Besides, whereas normally a U.S. president has considerable control of foreign affairs, Obama is today a lame duck president and for him to engage in vindictive initiatives against the foremost U.S. ally would further damage America’s standing and create a major revolt in Congress.

The greater risk facing Netanyahu is that by forcing Democrats to choose between backing their president and supporting his call for sanctions against Iran, he could fragment the crucial bipartisan support Israel enjoys from most Democrats and Republicans, and on which the Israeli American alliance is based.

There have already been harsh remarks by leading Democrats condemning the invitation. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, said it was inappropriate to invite Netanyahu while sensitive negotiations were in process about Iran’s nuclear program and two weeks before his own election. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martyn Indyk, notorious for intervening in domestic Israeli policies, accused Netanyahu of “using the Republican Congress for a photo-op for his election campaign.”

Those opposing the invitation also question whether the Senate will muster the 67 votes needed to override the veto that Obama has committed to invoke should Congress seek to impose sanctions.

Netanyahu rarely engages in risky initiatives. Indeed, many of his critics complain that one of his principal weaknesses is hesitancy and delay in decision-making.

He accepted this invitation because he regards a nuclear Iran as an immense global danger as well as an existential threat to Israel. Had he not consistently campaigned over the years, Iran would today have achieved its nuclear ambitions.

Over the past year, he observed with agony how the administration capitulated to virtually every demand of the Iranians, even granting them the right to a nuclear enrichment program, which would effectively make them a threshold nuclear state. In his determination to reach a deal with the Iranians, Obama has obfuscated the reality and moved toward a policy of containment. Yet whereas mutual assured destruction may have deterred the Soviets, this cannot be taken for granted when confronting the fanatic ayatollahs who would happily accept Paradise to impose what they believe to be Allah’s will.

Dennis Ross, previously Clinton’s and then Obama’s U.S. Middle East peace envoy, whose views usually reflect those of the Democratic Party, was scathing in his condemnation of the president’s weakness and ongoing concessions to the Iranians. Similar sentiments were expressed by former State Department security adviser Ray Takeyh and former Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman.

More importantly, Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee who, together with Republican Mark Kirk leads the campaign to strengthen sanctions against Iran, said at a Senate hearing: “I have to be honest with you, the more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.” Obama accused him of being concerned by “donors and others.”

On balance, I believe Netanyahu displayed courage in accepting such an invitation knowing the consequences.

Instead of displaying a united front, Israeli politicians have provided ammunition to the White House to discredit Netanyahu’s address to Congress as an election stunt. Through Congress, Netanyahu has a small window of opportunity to exploit a global platform to make his case on this crucial issue before the die is cast as the “P5+1” nations continue groveling to Iranian demands. He may well have a major influence in convincing Congress to reverse the Chamberlain-like policies of appeasement of Obama toward Iran. To forego such a rare opportunity would be irresponsible. At the very least, he will heighten U.S consciousness of the threatening global dangers should the Iranians achieve their goal.

There will be some backlash. But nobody is better qualified than Netanyahu to convey the message that, far from intervening in U.S. domestic politics ,he considers it his sacred task to seek to prevent a global catastrophe and existential threat to his people should the Iranian Islamic terrorist regime achieve nuclear power. He will stress that this should not be distorted as a move that would undermine congressional bipartisan policy toward Israel.

Those accusing Netanyahu of jeopardizing the U.S.-Israel relationship should bear in mind that even though Congress is currently dominated by the Republicans, it was elected by the people and is more representative of public opinion than the White House.

We should take pride that, other than Winston Churchill, our prime minister is the only world leader to have been invited on three occasions to address a joint sitting of Congress – the most powerful legislative body in the world.

Israeli patriots and friends of Israel should pray that Netanyahu’s address contributes toward preventing Iran from reaching nuclear status.

Isi Leibler may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com.

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom



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