What Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress Will Mean for Israel and US Politics

News Abroad
tags: Israel, Netanyahu

James R. Stocker, PhD, is Assistant Professor of International Affairs, Trinity Washington University.

Speech to Congress May 2011

During the State of the Union address in January, President Obama appeared to throw down a gauntlet, announcing that he would veto any new Congressional sanctions on Iran. These, he argued, would upset ongoing efforts to reach an agreement to control that country’s nuclear program and to prevent the development of a nuclear weapon.

In fact, this was only one shot fired in a round of a long-running dispute. Several bills now under consideration aim to intervene in the nuclear diplomacy. One threatens to apply new sanctions to Iran, while another requires any deal with Iran to be approved by the Congress. The President insists that American diplomacy be allowed a chance to succeed. Speaker of the House John Boehner has claimed that Obama wanted to sign a “bad deal” with Iran and then force it on the Congress. “Hell no” was his battle cry.

Fearing defeat, Boehner decided that outside intervention was necessary. He therefore issued an invitation to the leader of Israel to speak before the Congress on March 3. The President has refused to see Netanyahu, claiming that it is too close to the upcoming Israeli elections. Ironically, much of the American media sees Netanyahu’s visit to Washington as an attempt to intervene in, or even “poison,” American domestic politics.

Regardless, the invitation and its acceptance were historic. This Tuesday will mark Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s third appearance before the Congress, meaning that he is now tied with Winston Churchill for the title of most invited foreign leader in history to address the American legislature. With this appearance, the Israeli Prime Minister will beat out Nelson Mandela and King Hussein of Jordan, each of whom only had the opportunity twice.

The Congress is a natural venue for the Israeli leader, who has closer connections to the Washington political elite than perhaps any other Israeli politician. His last visit to the Congress in 2011 netted him an incredible 29 standing ovations, certainly more than he would ever receive in the Knesset. Indeed, Bibi’s Likud party may lose seats in the upcoming elections in March, leaving him unable to form a governing coalition. One month before Israelis go to the polls, a chance to play international statesman seemed likely to help his image at home. During his visit, he may also pick up support of another kind: according to one report, some 90% of his campaign contributions come from American sources.

Boehner, too, is concerned about domestic politics. The US 2016 presidential election is still 21 months off, but the campaign is already starting to take shape. For the GOP, inviting the Israeli leader to Capitol Hill pulls the rug out from under a deeply despised President, enhances a Republican brand of hawkish foreign policy, and advances the party’s agenda of luring pro-Israel voters away from the Democratic Party. At least those were goals of the invitation.

For most of American history, such a move would have been unthinkable. Certainly, the Presidency and the Congress have long tussled over foreign policy. But for the Congress to deliberately undermine the President by inviting a foreign leader takes the rivalry to another level. Of the more than 100 recorded invitations of foreign leaders to address Congress, there is no sign that any were invited in an attempt to undermine the foreign policy of a president.

Normally, invitations to speak before Congress are designed to honor a foreign dignitary or celebrate an achievement, such as Vaclav Hável’s address in February 1990 after his selection as President of Czechoslovakia, or visits by Arab and Israeli leaders in the 1970s and 1990s following steps towards peace by those countries. Photo ops in front of the American legislature might help shore up an ally seen as relatively weak at home, such as when Iraq’s Prime Minister Ayad Allawi visited in September 2004. On occasion, foreign leaders use their speeches to influence the Congress. During his second address to this body in 1943, Churchill aimed to quash Congressional sentiment that the United States should concentrate on defeating Japan first, instead of fighting Germany simultaneously.

There was a time when great Republicans such as Arthur Vandenberg understood the idea that the Congress should stop “partisan politics at the water's edge.” Mr. Boehner, however, sees nothing wrong with such an attempt to upset the President’s agenda. Whether his calculations are correct remains to be seen. More than 30 Democratic members of Congress have promised to boycott the speech. Others will attend, but are less than happy with the manner of the invitation.

That said, the long-term fallout from this incident is likely to be limited. Susan Rice, National Security Advisor, has called Netanyahu’s plans “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the United States and Israel. This is an exaggeration. Even the majority of Democrats will still attend the speech, and there is no sign that the administration is considering taking any concrete steps to change the US relationship with Israel, such as limiting aid or intelligence-sharing, though some fear that this could eventually be the result.

By the end of this year, Democratic presidential candidates will already be distancing themselves from Obama’s foreign policy, despite his ending of the American combat mission in Iraq, his moves towards establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, and his provision of more aid and intelligence assistance to Israel than any other previous president. Netanyahu’s visit won’t affect this much, one way or the other. But its timing and intent set a dangerous precedent, pointing to a continued fraying of the old consensus that the legislative and executive branches of government should be able to work out their differences in a civilized manner, without outside influence. 

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