It’s clear that by agreeing to House Speaker John Boehner’s offer to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, a precedent-breaking move in defiance of the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has made a calculated risk.
He appears willing to further erode, if not end, his already troubled relationship with President Obama in return for a prestigious platform to make another spirited case for rejecting the Western powers’ potential “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear program. The bonus for Netanyahu, no doubt, is to show his steely toughness to the Israeli public two weeks before the March 17 national elections.
But even the Israeli leader, a savvy veteran of diplomatic and political battles, seems to have underestimated the level of anger and outrage in the U.S. over his dissing of Obama. When Fox News anchors like Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith decry the move as shocking and foolhardy, it’s a clear indication that the prime minister over-reached in accepting, or orchestrating, the Boehner invitation.
Netanyahu is now caught in the middle of a Republican-Democrat catfight over foreign policy and the status of the president, certain to further weaken Jerusalem’s relationship with Democratic leaders. He is also being perceived as using his address to Congress as a campaign speech aimed at Israeli voters.
The whole situation is embarrassing, and exactly what Israel does not need. Rather than focus on the most important matter at hand, namely whether or not Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism with a longstanding desire to wipe out Israel, will be on track to produce a nuclear weapon, the media instead is full of reports of anonymous White House officials blasting Netanyahu. We understand their anger, but note that their comments have been personal attacks on the Israeli leader rather than thoughtful responses to allay his, and his citizens’, deep concerns about the dangers of a nuclear Iran. They are not alone. Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are also critical of the U.S.-led negotiating position until now, sighting Obama’s eagerness to reach a diplomatic deal at the risk of allowing Iran to reach a nuclear threshold.
The question for the moment is whether Netanyahu should go ahead with the talk to Congress or not. Many say he should withdraw from the spotlight and acknowledge his mistake. We think it’s too late to stop the damage, and it would be better if he made his case before Congress. He should do so by reiterating the facts, including Iran’s long record of sponsoring terror around the world, from Lebanon and Gaza to Argentina, and the illogic of Tehran enduring international sanctions to produce nuclear power solely for peaceful means, as it claims. The prime minister’s tone should not be mocking the naiveté of the West’s would-be peacemakers but that of an encouraging ally. It would be wise, as well, for Netanyahu to cite the financial, strategic and diplomatic support the U.S., and specifically the White House, has given Israel in recent years, from diplomatic cover at the UN to the Iron Dome protection that saved countless lives during the Gaza war last summer.
A positive working relationship between Obama and Netanyahu over the next two years is difficult to imagine at this point, and that is more than a shame. But given the critical nature of the Iran talks, to the region and the West, it’s important for the world to hear Netanyahu credit the president for the current sanctions, and more, while calling for a tougher stance to assure that Iran be prevented from the capability of producing nuclear weapons, as the U.S. has pledged.