Washington DC, United States – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give a speech to Congress on Tuesday that will be, observers say, a naked bid to boost his re-election prospects at home and risks opening a serious rift in the relationship with the US.
Netanyahu’s appearance, anticipated for weeks following his invitation by US Republican leader John Boehner, is fuelling a partisan controversy between Democrats and Republicans, as well as among American Jews.
The controversy is polarising American politics and adding to negative perceptions among Democrat voters of Netanyahu and Israel, analysts and activists say.
“Americans are seeing it as a bit of a thumb in the face of the institution of the presidency,” Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, told Al Jazeera.
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On the surface, Netanyahu’s visit is designed to rally pro-Israel voices in the US Congress against a nuclear deal with Iran that President Barack Obama hopes to reach by the end of March.
Not by coincidence, 16,000 members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are holding an annual meeting in Washington on the same day and will visit members of Congress to lobby against any deal with Iran.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s governing Likud party faces elections on March 17, and observers of Israeli politics say the timing of the prime minister’s speech in Washington is clearly geared to sway voters back home.
“Netanyahu is playing domestic politics and he is coming to the US to portray himself as Israel’s last defender against the real malevolent forces in Iran and the trumped up negative forces in the [Obama] administration,” Gideon Aronoff, CEO of Ameinu, a liberal Jewish organisation based in New York, told Al Jazeera.
‘Fabric of the relationship’
Leading up to Netanyahu’s visit, key Obama officials made the administration’s displeasure clear. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry announced they would not attend the speech. Obama declined to offer an invitation to the White House.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who is close to Obama, said in a nationally televised interview last week that Netanyahu’s planned visit is “not only unfortunate, it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship”.
Speaking Monday to AIPAC, the US’ largest pro-Israeli lobbying group, Rice gave a tough-minded defence of the Obama administration’s diplomatic approach to the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme.
“We can’t let a totally unachievable goal stand in the way of a good deal,” she said, shooting back at Netanyahu’s criticism.
More than 40 of 188 Democrat members of the House and 7 of 44 Democrat senators announced they would not attend Netanyahu’s speech, an unprecedented boycott by lawmakers of a speech by a visiting head of state.
“There is no history of a speech like this being done with the majority trying to cut out the president. None,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who will not attend, told Al Jazeera. “For us pro-Israel Democrats, when they try to set this up and cut us out, that’s not a good thing.”
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the longest serving Democrat in the Senate, said he was annoyed the last time Netanyahu spoke to Congress in 2011 and won’t attend this time. “I don’t want Mr Netanyahu or any foreign leader coming in here, telling us, instructing us on what we’re supposed to do,” Leahy told Al Jazeera.
To be sure, most Democrats, who are in the minority in Congress, plan to attend the speech.
He really wants the Israeli public to see him as Mr Security.
“I am glad the prime minister is coming and I am glad that most of my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, will be there to hear what he has to say,” Boehner told reporters on Capitol Hill.
But Netanyahu has long been associated with the US Republican Party, according to Guy Ziv, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Foreign Service, who directs its Israel National Security Project.
Netanyahu clashed with former President Bill Clinton in 1996 and he all but endorsed Obama’s Republican opponent Mitt Romney during the 2012 US presidential elections. He is a recipient of support from Sheldon Adelson, the US casino magnate who gave $100m to Republican candidates in the 2014 US congressional elections.
Scholars for Israel & Palestine, a progressive, mostly Jewish group of 65 North American academics, wrote Netanyahu to oppose his visit as “unwise” because it is “undermining what was once bipartisan and near-universal support for Israel”.
So far Netanyahu has not taken a hit in the polls in Israel from this overseas controversy. His Likud Party is running closely with the Zionist Union party, and he has an advantage in being able to build a coalition with religious right parties following the election.
Problems back home
Netanyahu’s highly publicised trip to Washington diverts attention away from his perceived weaknesses on domestic policy – housing and the economy.
By highlighting the Iran issue and creating a crisis with Obama over the talks, Netanyahu plays to his national security strengths among Israeli voters, Ziv said.
“He really wants the Israeli public to see him as Mr Security,” Ziv told Al Jazeera.
Appearing Monday before AIPAC, Netanyahu defended his actions to hearty applause.
“The speech is not intended to inject Israel into the American partisan debate,” Netanyahu said. “I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that.
“The purpose of my address to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran,” Netanyahu told the AIPAC crowd.
Netanyahu’s claims in his 2012 speech to the UN about Iran’s weapons programme were contradicted by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, according to leaked intelligence cables.
Kerry in testimony before Congress on Iran last week questioned Netanyahu’s “judgement” on whether the P5+1 talks would yield a viable agreement.
Kerry is skipping the speech to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Geneva.
Advocates of Palestinian human rights see the controversy as an opportunity to advance their arguments in Congress against Netanyahu’s policies, according to Josh Ruebner, policy director for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
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The US Campaign together with partners RootsAction, Jewish Voice for Peace, American Muslims for Palestine, and Code Pink have been soliciting their members to write letters to their representatives opposing Netanyahu.
“Netanyahu does not speak about peace in good faith – illegal settlements and human rights violations against Palestinians have only increased under his leadership,” the letters say.
“We have generated more than 100,000 letters from constituents to members of Congress,” Ruebner said. “We are making sure that members of Congress understand that constituents are upset about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.”
Shibley Telhami, a pollster and professor at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera that Netanyahu’s speech is accelerating a division among American voters over Israel that began nearly a decade ago.
“There has been a profound change in the American political mainstream around Israel policy,” said Telhami who plans to release new poll data on Tuesday.
“While Republicans are growing more and more to support Israeli policies, Democrats are less and less supportive of these Israeli policies to the point where the young Democrats now want to take the Palestinian side over Israel,” Telhami said.