Four things Netanyahu’s Congress speech accomplished
The Israeli PM set out to warn American lawmakers about a nuclear Iran, but may have hurt relations with the US.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has been the talk of Washington. Close watchers have discussed the protocol, motivation and timing. That territory has been pretty well trampled so perhaps it’s more helpful now that the speech is over to look at what was accomplished.
1) The Obama administration is really angry
President Barack Obama said what you might expect: this isn’t personal, the US relationship with Israel is still special and that he will continue to work with the prime minister. However, it’s just as important to look at what else was said.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice called the move destructive to the allies’ relationship. A White House spokesman said it was an attempt to make an end run around the executive branch. The Obama administration admitted it is not sharing all the intelligence on the negotiations with Israel out of fear Netanyahu’s government will leak it to the press. Obama admitted he wasn’t just angry about the timing of the speech but the content.
The president also asked people to imagine what would have happened if French President Jacques Chirac had been asked to speak to Congress in the run-up to the Iraq war. Can you imagine that happening? Probably not and that is the point. This was unprecedented and not just the speech, but the administration so blatantly and publicly complaining about the actions of the Israeli prime minister.
2) Netanyahu knows how far he can push Obama
Netanyahu took a huge risk making this speech. He’s less than two weeks away from his country’s domestic elections and you can assume that the US relationship matters to some voters in Israel. What if Obama had come out and said this was the final straw and that he had been disrespected for the last time? What if he had said he would no longer offer Israel protection at the United Nations? The president has the power to do that, not Congress. However, Obama didn’t say that, and I think that is very telling.
3) Many Democrats feel snubbed
Why did Netanyahu snub Democratic senators? Amid all of the criticism that he was making the speech a partisan issue, a group of prominent senators threw him what appeared to be a lifeline. They invited him to speak to Senate Democrats but he declined. I’m not sure what his logic was in that. The prime minister repeatedly said the event wasn’t political or partisan. Not many people I’ve talked to believe that. By some estimates as many as 60 Democratic congressmen boycotted the speech in protest, including a handful of Jewish members.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois called the whole thing historical; it has never happened before in the history of the US Congress that so many members of Congress boycotted a joint meeting. Many Democrats came out after the speech with withering criticism. One called it a “condescending” speech; another characterised it as an “insult to their intelligence”. More than a few questioned the prime minister’s logic on the entire issue of Iran. I can’t remember a time when any elected US official was so openly critical of an Israeli leader. It doesn’t happen, but it just did.
4) Netanyahu hurt his chances at scuttling the bill
It’s not at all clear that the administration believes it needs Congress to implement a deal immediately. It has signalled that just like the interim deal, the president can waive sanctions without the approval of Congress. The prime minister wants Congress to pass a bill demanding that they get the final say. The Senate was poised to take up that bill and then the speech was announced. It didn’t take long for Democrats to say that they were going to put the bill on hold until late March. The president says he’ll veto any bill that would tie his hands. If Republicans want to override his veto they’ll need Democratic support, but after today’s speech many might be less likely to back the prime minister’s play, especially if they believe that what he’s really accomplished is humiliating the president by criticising his foreign policy to his own lawmakers.