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Will Netanyahu’s speech to Congress backfire?

Posted at 12:52 PM, Mar 01, 2015

WASHINGTON — In his speech to Congress Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to lobby Congress for tougher sanctions on Iran and appeal for support from the American public in pushing back against a nuclear deal he opposes — but the speech may have just the opposite effect.

Netanyahu’s detractors and even some supporters are expressing concern that he may have overplayed his hand by going before Congress to oppose President Barack Obama’s Iran policy without consulting the White House.

The controversy surrounding the address, they warn, may have overshadowed the message and turned potentially friendly Democrats toward the position of their president, who wants to see the deal with Iran go through and opposes further sanctions at this point.

Negotiators have until the end of the month to lay out the political framework of a deal. But a group of 10 pro-Israel Senate Democrats have said they’d be willing to consider joining with Republicans to pass new sanctions on Iran after March 24, giving the GOP a near veto-proof number of votes in favor of the measure.

Netanyahu’s address could make or break the three remaining Democratic votes needed to override a certain presidential veto on new sanctions. Allies of the prime minister say that he felt a sense of urgency on the issue that made him willing to risk a break with the White House, which had recently asked him not to publicly lobby against the deal.

Netanyahu is known for his oratorical skills and believes in the power of a speech to shape history, which is ultimately his goal with Tuesday’s address. He feels the threat to Israel from a nuclear Iran is an existential one, and he has explained that his decision to speak, despite the consequences, is informed by a deep concern for the future of his nation.

“I respect the White House and the President of the United States, but on such a fateful matter, that can determine whether or not we survive, I must do everything to prevent such a great danger for Israel,” he said in Israel Wednesday.

But many are questioning how much Netanyahu’s Washington visit — during which the White House has pointedly declined to arrange an Oval Office visit — will go towards preventing the outcome he fears.

“It will only undermine Israel’s ability to influence the critical issue of securing a genuine guarantee that Iran will never gain access to nuclear weaponry,” Israel’s Opposition Leader, Isaac Herzog, who is challenging Netanyahu in the upcoming election, wrote in The New York Times Friday. “Such an outcome is what Israel needs, but it can be achieved only through a full and trusting dialogue with the American administration, based on broad bipartisan support.”

Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency and a Netanyahu critic, told Ynet News Friday that strained ties with Obama have already hurt Israel.

“The risks involved in such a confrontation [with the U.S.] are intolerable,” he said.

There have been reports of American officials limiting some of their consultations with Israel on Iran, and in a sign of how fraught the relationship has become — with the invitation from Republican Speaker John Boehner lending the event a partisan agenda in the eyes of Democrats — both the White House and Netanyahu have ramped up their rhetoric over the past week. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called the speech “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

More than 30 Democrats are planning to boycott the speech and some have indicated they are more torn now on whether to vote in favor of sanctions. Many view Boehner’s invitation and the lack of consultation with the White House as a snub of Obama, and that could complicate their decision on whether to deal their party leader a major blow by voting to override his promised sanctions veto.

“The ‘bull in the China shop’ manner in which Netanyahu has handled this whole situation makes it very difficult for both the U.S. Jewish community and Congress to fully sympathize with him and his whole message,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, which supports the U.S. negotiations with Iran.

Even Netanyahu’s supporters have said that, because of the way the situation has been handled, he may face a bigger challenge in convincing Congress and the U.S. as a whole to come around to his perception of the threat from Iran.

“I do think it’s tougher to make the case now,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and a close ally of Netanyahu.

Recent polling seems to bear that out. Sixty-three percent of Americans opposed congressional leaders’ move to invite Netanyahu to speak without sufficiently alerting the White House, according to a CNN/ORC survey out this month. And a Gallup poll found that Democratic support for Israel fell 10 points over the past year, possibly due to the rising tensions between Obama and Netanyahu.

Still, many Netanyahu backers argue that the prime minister has made the right call in delivering the high-profile speech.

“He didn’t come here to insult the president,” said Morrie Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC. “He came here to warn of an extreme danger that needs to be articulated in whatever form, whatever way possible.”

Amitay pointed to the “many unanswered questions about the deal in the works” to describe the skepticism with which many supporters of Israel are greeting its emerging contours.

“Of course we want a deal, but what is in the deal?” he asked.

And while some have expressed concern that the dominant narrative around the speech has become the antagonism between Netanyahu and the White House rather than the substance of the Iran deal, there is no doubt that the controversy has spiked interest in his address.

Demand for tickets to the event has been “unprecedented,” according to Boehner’s office. In fact, requests have been so overwhelming that the House and Senate have set up alternate viewing locations, which are also ticketed. Media coverage has been intense, and at least some high-profle figures have endorsed Netanyahu’s appearance — including Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who will attend as a guest of the speaker.

A spokesman for the Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

Whether or not the speech helps advance Netanyahu’s position on Iran, its fallout could continue far beyond the March deadline.

Dan Arbell, a former Israeli diplomat and a Brookings fellow, said in the wake of the controversy surrounding the speech, he believes Netanyahu may find “zero tolerance for his requests” at the White House and predicted a long-term negative impact on Netanyahu’s diplomatic efforts should he retain office after the March 17 vote.

“This is a basic issue of trust, and how do you go from here?” Arbell wondered. “How can you actually work together in such a situation where you clearly challenge the president of the United States?”