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March 3, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s recent speech before the U.S. Congress had been a point of controversy in the U.S. and Middle East. Before the address, the White House had characterized the planned speech as potentially destructive for the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The U.S. president was not the only one upset; many in Israel had urged Mr. Netanyahu not to go forward with it. Some fear that the speech may further isolate Israel on the international stage. Others fear that Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to ignore White House warnings will cause irreparable damage to the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Nevertheless, Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters seem to have made the calculation that, with President Barack Obama in the last two years of his second term, the likelihood of long-lasting damage might not be as great as has been suggested.
In an op-ed for the Yedioth Ahronoth, Ron Ben-Yishai pleads with his prime minister, suggesting that while speaking at AIPAC and other public forums might be a good idea, speaking before the U.S. Congress could backfire for Mr. Netanyahu: “You, Mr. Prime Minister, have torpedoed the chances for such a move gaining a majority vote in Congress. Democratic lawmakers who planned to support any new sanctions are now refusing to do so, in retribution for your planned speech; Obama has already announced he would veto any immediate sanctions.... Our allegiance with the U.S. is a central factor in our military deterrence and our regional strength, both actual and perceived.”
Jerusalem Post’s Jeff Barak also believes the speech is a bad idea and it would only serve to isolate Israel further, especially with regards to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program: “the fact is that Netanyahu is single- handedly weakening Israel’s ability to influence the rest of the international community to ensure that Iran never reaches the status of a nuclear power....But by placing Israel at the forefront of the campaign against Iran as Netanyahu has done, the prime minister has given the world an excuse to see the Iranian issue as a problem for Jerusalem to solve alone, rather than an international crisis demanding a cross-country initiative....Netanyahu’s speech will have no impact whatsoever on the future of the negotiations with Iran. If anything, it is even more likely to motivate Obama into closing a deal, no matter the loopholes, just to show that he can’t be bossed around by Netanyahu or his Republican allies.”
Regional commentators and editorials have focused on the long-term impact that Mr. Netanyahu’s speech will have on the US-Israeli relationship. James Zogby, in an op-ed for the National, accuses Mr. Netanyahu of turning his U.S. visit into political theatre, with potentially devastating consequences for his country: “What the prime minister did not expect was the firestorm his appearance would produce. By having his ambassador to Washington, a former Republican Party operative, conspire with the speaker of the House to arrange this speech, the Israeli leader displayed remarkable short-sighted arrogance....It may very well be that when Mr Netanyahu is finished with his big Washington adventure, many officials there will insist that the US-Israel bonds are “unbreakable”. And many in Congress will still jump, when asked, to do Israel’s bidding. But that’s not the whole story, since he will leave in his wake a fractured Israel and a deeply divided America. Such will be the master manipulator’s legacy.”
The Daily Star’s Rami Khouri agrees that the Prime Minister’s speech to the U.S. Congress will have a temporary effect on the special relationship between the two countries, but that it is unlikely to make permanent damage: “Such strong, personalized editorial attacks against an incumbent Israeli prime minister are particularly noteworthy when they include matter-of-fact expectations for softer American support for Israel. We also see signs that the once monochrome American-Israeli embrace is becoming more nuanced, with the U.S. fully supporting Israel’s security but opposing some specific diplomatic positions that Israel would like the U.S. to take....The likelihood that such shifts or downgrades would occur in strategic ties between the U.S. and Israel is extremely low to nonexistent, given the huge structural support the Israel enjoys in the U.S. Congress.
Part of the reason why some, including Arab News’ Hassan Barari, think the damage may not be long-lasting is because with the U.S. president on the way out and his low approval rating among the Israeli public, it is quite possible the Mr. Netanyahu’s risk was a calculated one: “the standing of Obama in Israel, according to many polls, has gone down. An average of less than 10 percent of Israelis said that Obama was pro-Israel....At a deeper level, the insistence of Netanyahu to give his speech [Tuesday] may shatter the already thorny relationship with White House and could come as a test of the resilience of the ‘special’ relationship that for long has characterized Israeli-American ties....Netanyahu seems willing to subordinate the ties with Obama for the sake of making sure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapon. In two years, Obama will be an ex-president and then Israel can patch up the special relationship with American then.”
Then there are those who believe that by pressing forward, Mr. Netanyahu is undermining his credibility and that of Israel, allowing the American people to see through the Israeli rhetoric. That at least is Jim W. Dean’s argument which he outlines in an op-ed for the Iranian daily Press TV: “What Bibi is doing here, a massive lie, is converting Iran’s having a reprocessing capability into a certainty that Iran will make bombs and use them on Israel. Bibi is talking to us like we are idiots....Israel has been telling us for two decades that Iran is going to have the bomb soon, has always been proven wrong, yet it continues to make the claim. It is time to make the Zionists eat their words, and I think Bibi is providing us that opportunity....Dear Mr. Netanyahu, we have come around now to being happy you are doing the speech, because we think it will be the downfall of your popularity in America.”
Clearly, many in the region see PM Netanyahu’s actions as an effort to thwart a potential peace deal with Iran. While it is not clear that such a deal would suit the other countries in the region as well, most regional observers are united in their view that the Israeli prime minister’s involvement on this issue and others can also worsen the situation: “That Benjamin Netanyahu is the biggest impediment to peace in the Middle East is a widely recognized truth. All of the Arab world thinks so, as do many in the West, including the US. Interestingly, many in Israel too share this notion.... President Barack Obama and other Democrats have accused Netanyahu and Republicans of using the speech to inject partisan politics into the US-Israel relationship, and the Obama administration bluntly said that Netanyahu’s speech would be destructive to US-Israeli relations....A reelection of Netanyahu will only increase the isolation of Israel on the global stage. A status quo on the Palestinian front is no longer sustainable and that’s exactly what Netanyahu wants. Gaza is already a powder keg waiting to explode, and Netanyahu is such toxic material his presence can ignite the fuse.”
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