Netanyahu’s U.S. speech: Do elections trump national interest?

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Netanyahu is more comfortable working with the Republicans

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
9 min read

Cynicism is lamentably part and parcel of political life and many politicians’ behavior. Somehow we accept it even if we distain it in politicians, and therefore, they get away with it. However, at times political cynicism is extremely blunt and too obvious for anyone to ignore. Such is the case of the invitation extended by the Republican leadership of the American Congress to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress about the need to tighten the screw on Iran. Especially as the date of this speech is very close to that of the Israeli elections.

The invite was concocted by the American born Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The control the Republicans resumed over both houses of Congress, following their victory back in November last year, handed Netanyahu the alliance he sought in American politics. He shares in common with them not only substantive policy disagreements with the American president, but also personal contempt for him. The two leaders fundamentally disagree on the two main issues that the Obama administration has focused on in Middle East policy: peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear program. Worse, they developed an obvious personal disdain for one another. Colluding to invite the Israeli prime minister to speak in Congress without consulting the president –so close to the Israeli elections and on such a controversial issue— rightly infuriated the American administration. It undermines the president’s authority and embroils the U.S. in the domestic political processes in Israel. Following this episode, repairing the trust between Obama and Netanyahu is almost a mission impossible.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Netanyahu is more comfortable working with the Republicans on both the peace process with the Palestinians and Iranian nuclear issue. They share a much more hawkish and skeptical view regarding the intentions of both the Palestinians and the Iranians, than Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry. Nevertheless, there is a considerable difference between legitimate policy disagreements and scheming between the Republican leaders and Netanyahu, behind the back of the president, to serve each other’s vested political interests. The Republicans see Netanyahu as an important ally in resisting Obama’s approach for the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and consequently in generally weakening him politically. Both leading Republicans and the Israeli decision makers see the American administration and the rest of the P5+1 negotiators with Iran as too soft and even naïve in their approach. They would rather vote for imposing further sanctions on Iran than wait to see the outcome of the negotiations. No agreement would satisfy them because they are suspicious of Iranian intentions to implement whatever they sign. No one suggests that any agreement should be accepted or the Iranians should be unconditionally trusted. This is not the way international agreements work, they require stringent verification mechanisms accompanied by sanctions for violating the agreements on all sides. However, no international agreement would ever be signed if the underlying a priori assumption is that one of the sides is predisposed to violate it. Netanyahu is eager to use one of the most important political stages in the international arena, which happens to be a most welcoming to him, to drive home his message of utter distrust in any agreement with the Iranians. He will most likely, as he did before, link together Iran with ISIS and the Palestinian Hamas as one and the same face of Islamic extremism that present a danger not only to Israel, but also to the entire world. This approach is dangerously without nuance and thus lacks any complexity. It reflects a worldview that is black and white with an absence of necessary shades of grey.

Netanyahu hopes that emasculating Obama on his own turf in Washington, regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, will also weaken the U.S. president’s hand

Yossi Mekelberg

Netanyahu hopes that emasculating Obama on his own turf in Washington, regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, will also weaken the U.S. president’s hand if he is tempted to take a tougher line with Israel on the peace process with the Palestinians and on the building of Jewish settlements. President Obama seemed a much more determined figure during his recent State of the Union speech, reminding everyone that he has no more elections to win and still two years to govern. It is his opportunity, within the political constraints of a very hostile political environment in Washington, to ensure his presidency leaves a worthwhile legacy. Netanyahu is worried that this will include an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program and renewed efforts to restart the peace process; a goal he sees as contrary to Israel’s strategic interests. Boehner and Netanyahu’s blunt departure from diplomatic protocol infuriated the Obama administration. Furthermore, it also alienated many of Israel’s Democratic Party allies in Congress, even those who support the imposition of new sanctions on Iran. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called the invitation to Netanyahu two weeks before elections in Israel “hubris.” She added in a press conference that “it’s out of the ordinary that the speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation.” A speech by Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress, at a time when the negotiations with Iran are reaching a very delicate stage and Israel is facing election, is not only an affront to President Obama but also an embarrassment to the American political system.

Empty gestures

Netanyahu throughout his political career preferred empty gestures to any profound set of policies and his narrow political interests over the ones of the country he was elected to lead. Less than two months before election day his standing in the public opinion polls is less than encouraging for him and his party, not to mention that he and his wife Sarah are alleged to be involved in the misuse of state funds. As usual when the going gets tough at home, Netanyahu’s preferred stage is the United States, surrounded by supportive audience in the U.S. Congress, delivering what in his mind is a Churchillian speech. His reward, he and his advisors believe, will be delivered in the ballot box two weeks later. If the price for this is a further deterioration of his relationship with the Obama administration, so be it.

There are countless reasons to hope that the days of Netanyahu as the Israeli prime minister are numbered. However, on the basis of his and his political allies’ brazen and reckless behavior in dealing with Israel’s greatest and most loyal ally, one cannot avoid questioning their judgment. Obama has ammunition in abundance to make the Israeli government pay for its behavior; behavior that hurts American interests in the region. Netanyahu still has enough time to change his mind about the March 3 visit to Washington and in doing so avoid exacerbating already strained relations with the Obama administration. If he still decides to go ahead with his appearance in Congress, despite repeated requests not to do so, the Israeli electorate should view this as a selfish act of diplomatic folly.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending