On March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak before both chambers of Congress about the ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Iranian government over the latter’s ability to acquire and develop nuclear technologies. It’s already considered one of the most controversial political speeches in recent memory, and it hasn’t even happened yet.
What’s going on with Netanyahu’s address, and why is everyone so worried about it? This is an explainer for people who need to catch up on Washington’s latest dispute. We’ll start with some background on Netanyahu, go over his reasons for giving the speech itself, and conclude with why it is so controversial.
Why is Netanyahu speaking to Congress tomorrow?
On January 21, House Speaker and Ohio Republican John Boehner invited Netanyahu “to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” Boehner extended the invitation in the context of the Obama administration’s ongoing negotiations with Iran about its stated desire to develop nuclear technology, which requires a supply of enriched uranium.
Netanyahu’s speech will address the potential threat a nuclear-equipped Iran would pose to Israel. Iranian leaders say they want enriched uranium for the purpose of building nuclear power plants, but both the U.S. and Israel (along with many of their Western allies) suspect Iran plans to stockpile enriched uranium to eventually build nuclear weapons. Many Israelis, and Netanyahu in particular, believe a nuclear-equipped Iran would specifically target Israel, and that the United States is underestimating Iran’s appetite for nuclear weaponry.
Netanyahu is particularly motivated by the fact that the Obama administration has rejected Congress’s recent calls for economic sanctions against Iran. The President believes those sanctions would derail negotiations with Iran, thereby risking armed conflict in the Middle East.
Netanyahu, by contrast, has said a nuclear Iran poses an “existential threat” to Israel, based on Iran’s well-known hostility toward Zionism, the 19th-century national movement that led to Israel’s establishment in 1948. Iranian officials, including its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have vowed to destroy Israel (which they frequently refer to as the “Zionist entity” or the “Zionist regime”) in retaliation for the dispossession of the Palestinians. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called Israel “the most criminal regime in human history” and a “germ of corruption [that] will be wiped off.” (Ahmadinejad also believes the events of the Holocaust were invented to embarrass Germany.) The country’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, has referred to Israel as a “festering Zionist tumor.”
Is that why Netanyahu’s speech is so controversial?
It is not particularly controversial to argue that a nuclear Iran would threaten Israel’s security or that the United States is insufficiently skeptical of Iran’s justification for wanting enriched uranium. Iran’s violent rhetoric toward Israel is no secret, either. The source of the speech’s controversy, instead, is the manner in which it was planned, scheduled, and announced.
When representatives of a foreign country want to address Congress, they are expected to prepare their speeches in consultation with the President of the United States. This diplomatic protocol is considered particularly important for leaders of Israel, given their state’s longstanding friendship with the U.S.
Netanyahu deliberately ignored this protocol. He accepted Boehner’s invitation and, with the help of Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, ensured that President Obama was not made aware of the invitation until Boehner had confirmed its details. Boehner, for his part, made it clear that he had invited Netanyahu to rebuke the President, thereby aligning Netanyahu with the Republican Party against Obama and the Democrats.
In response, Obama announced that he would not be meeting with Netanyahu, citing the vicinity of the March 17 elections in Israel. “We do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections,” a spokeswoman for Obama announced in January, “so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country.” More than two dozen Congressional Democrats intend to boycott Netanyahu’s speech to show support for the President.
If Obama isn’t going to meet with Netanyahu, then what exactly is the controversy?
The Obama administration is obviously unhappy with the fact that Netanyahu planned his speech before Congress without consulting the President, and undoubtedly consider the Israeli leader’s actions controversial in and of themselves. But Netanyahu’s breach of protocol does not fully account for the level of rhetoric surrounding his speech.
What is this rhetoric are you talking about?
Netanyahu’s speech is widely seen as dangerous, even lethal, to U.S.-Israeli relations. Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, recently told PBS host Charlie Rose that his speech was “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the two countries. “Netanyahu’s Speech in Congress Is a Revolting and Dangerous Gamble,” reads a recent headline on Slate, which leans liberal. “The prime minister and his advisors—people who have a better grasp of Washington culture than most Israelis—have gotten so deep into the issue that they’ve lost sight of political reality,” the conservative magazine Commentary asserted.
How is Netanyahu’s speech dangerous to U.S.-Israeli relations?
The basis of this argument concerns the historically bipartisan nature of the United States’ relationship with Israel. Since it was founded in 1948, the U.S. has remained Israel’s strongest and most consistent ally. The American government directs $3 billion in military assistance to Israel each year, and has diplomatically supported the country by rejecting hundreds of U.N. resolutions condemning its treatment of Palestinians in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The level and nature of U.S. assistance to Israel has not meaningfully changed since the 1970s, when the U.S. began disbursing large-scale aid to the country.
What does that have to do with Netanyahu?
For aligning himself with John Boehner, numerous parties have accused Netanyahu of treating the security and support of Israel as a “partisan” issue. Susan Rice, for example, said the Israeli leader had “injected a degree of partisanship” into U.S.-Israel relations. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic—whom Roger Cohen of The New York Times once called Netanyahu’s “faithful stenographer”—wrote in January that “Netanyahu’s management of his relationship with Obama threatens the bipartisan nature of Israel’s American support.”
What does “injecting a degree of partisanship” mean, though?
It basically means that Netanyahu is subjecting the State of Israel to unpredictable disagreements between Republicans and Democrats. This poses a problem to pro-Israel interest groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who have argued that the strength and longevity of the United States’ relationship with Israel derives from the fact that the country draws bipartisan support. Alienating one of the major political parties, this argument goes, would risk dividing American support for Israel along party lines. Such a division could plausibly affect Israel’s safety; after all, nearly all of American aid to Israel is designated for military purposes. For Israel, maintaining bipartisan U.S. support is therefore treated as a matter of national security.
The actual risk to U.S.-Israeli relations, however, seems minimal. While American support for Israel is the subject of public discussion and protests, particularly on college campuses, it is not the subject of any real political debate on the national stage. The two major parties in Washington remain enthusiastic supporters of Israel, and mostly agree to place the countries’ relationship beyond the realm of day-to-day politics.
Then why are people so worked up about this?
While Netanyahu’s speech does not necessarily endanger the U.S.-Israeli relationship, it certainly helps highlights how singular it is. And the simple act of discussing the countries’ relations implies, to some, that there’s something wrong with them. The question indirectly raised by Netanyahu’s actions is indeed a fraught one: Should American support for Israel be subject to any form of political debate?
Wait, why isn’t Israel subject to political debate?
The underlying reasons for this situation are a topic of longstanding disagreement. It is true, for example, that a majority of Americans support Israel, and tend to approve of its actions during armed conflicts with neighboring countries and territories (including Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip last summer). This is not necessarily unintuitive, since Israel positions itself as a Western-style democracy that welcomes exiles, primarily Jews, from other countries. There are a number of key differences between the U.S. and Israel, including the latter’s establishment as a Jewish homeland and its present occupation of the Palestinian territories, but in several ways the countries, and their liberal ideals, line up with each other.
Some believe, however, that American support for Israel is largely due the activity of organizations that try to steer American policies and attitudes in a pro-Israel direction. One is the aforementioned AIPAC, which aggressively lobbies Congress to pass legislation advantageous to Israel (such as placing economic sanctions on Iran). Another is Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which commands influence among American evangelical Christians and funds the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank (based, in part, on their belief that the Jewish people must occupy the entirety of Palestine before the second coming of Jesus Christ).
AIPAC, CUFI, and other groups were the subject of an infamous 2006 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, whose authors blamed a coalition of pro-Israel outfits (the ‘Israel Lobby’) for shaping American policy not only toward Israel but the entire Middle East, at the cost of American interests abroad.
As you may have guessed, the topic is extremely contentious, and many politicians would rather not attempt to debate it.
So this is why everyone’s so worked up about Netanyahu’s speech?
Benjamin Netanyahu’s fear of a nuclear Iran is not groundless. Nor are the various grievances aimed at him. Washington worked itself up about the Prime Minister’s speech, however, because he decided that the Iranian threat mitigated his responsibility to preserve his relationship with Democrats, in hopes that Democrats would preserve it for him. And in all likelihood, they will. But the reason this dispute became a storm is that it placed previously marginal questions about U.S. support for Israel closer to the center of political debate. For the president and legislature of Israel’s most generous patron, this development represents a very different but no less menacing kind of threat.