In a speech signaling Benjamin Netanyahu’s unabated defiance of President Barack Obama, the Israeli Prime Minister spoke before a joint session of Congress on the threats inherent in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Netanyahu’s acceptance of the invitation by US Republican leader John Boehner, to address Congress without prior approval of the Obama administration, was seen by many as a direct affront to the US president. As expected, the speech led to a whirlwind of political debate in Washington — debates that went far beyond examining the Obama administration’s approach to the Iranian nuclear program, or its dispute with the Israeli government, to question the future of the relationship between the US and Israel.
The White House’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu, on the grounds that his visit was only two weeks ahead of the Israeli March 17 elections to the Knesset, was an unprecedented development in American-Israeli relations, compounded by the fact that close to 60 congressional Democrats, including prominent Jewish voices, boycotted Netanyahu’s speech.
A Crisis Looming Despite Diplomatic Niceties
Netanyahu started his address by praising the historically close relationship between the United States and Israel, one that he described was “above politics”. He also made sure to affirm the strong support for Israel shown by Obama during his first six years of presidency, a sentiment later echoed by the American president in his response to Netanyahu’s speech, where he described the relationship between Washington and Israel as “unbreakable”. Obama further urged Congress to continue supporting Israel, and to provide the assistance it needed to protect itself. Given Netanyahu’s actions, however, these proclamations rang hollow: no pleasantries or diplomacy could hide the growing tensions evident in Israeli-American relations.
Speaking before Congress, Netanyahu worked to repudiate all justifications made by the Obama administration in negotiating a deal with Iran, thus severely undermining the efforts of the White House to date. Adding fuel to the fire, the Israeli prime minister declined an invitation to hold a separate meeting with members of the congressional Democratic Party, a move that would have saved them the embarrassment of having to boycott his speech, something many of them ended up doing as a protest against the affront to a Democratic president.
The reaction of the White House was predictable. That any Israeli prime minister dares defy a US president, in the heart of the federal capital no less, shows signs of a serious imbalance in the bi-lateral relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. Regardless of how robust the relationship between them, Israel remains a foreign country, one that should have known better than to be a party to domestic American partisan disputes. This was expressed in a statement by US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who spoke of Netanyahu’s acceptance of John Boehner’s invitation as being “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the two countries . Rice added that the timing of the visit, just two weeks prior to Israel’s legislative elections, “injected a degree of partisanship” in US-Israeli relations, contrasting sharply with Obama’s request for the relationship to remain solid and unchanging irrespective of partisanship.
Even statements such as these, however, are indicative of a serious flaw in the US-Israeli relationship: they show an American president forced to defend his policies against the criticisms of a foreign leader backed by an opposing political party, whilst Israel appears to have free reign to treat the United States as a stomping ground from which it can operate at will.
Obama and Netanyahu: A Strained Relationship
The personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been strained from the outset, ever since the American president took office in early 2009, as witnessed in a string of standoffs between the two leaders over the course of Obama’s presidency.
Netanyahu foiled the administration’s efforts to mediate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including Secretary of State John Kerry’s latter shuttle diplomacy. This he did through an unyielding escalation of settlement building, a move that faced no public condemnation from the US president, nor real pressure on Israel. In fact, not only did the Netanyahu government work to undo Kerry’s efforts, but it also showed no qualms in personally attacking the US Secretary of State, dismissing his efforts as an attempt to win a Nobel Peace Prize at Israel’s expense.
In March of 2010, the Netanyahu government announced plans for the construction of 1,600 housing units in occupied East Jerusalem in the midst of a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden. The timing of the announcement was seen as an insult to Biden, who had arrived to advance the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and to urge Israel to freeze settlement construction.
Then came Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress during a visit to Washington in May 2011, where he was outspoken about the “red lines” he drew for American policy in the Middle East. In contrast to the latest speech, Obama had back then met with the Israeli prime minister, and all of the congressional Democratic leaders attended his address to Congress.
The relationship was once again thrust into the spotlight during the 2012 presidential elections, when Netanyahu, violating diplomatic protocol, supported the Republican candidate for the US presidency, Mitt Romney.
What makes the latest move by Netanyahu so bold, however, is Netanyahu’s audacity to humiliate an American President in his own capital; the latest maneuver in an as-yet unexhausted chain of insults, which National Security Council (NSC) Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan aptly describes when she said “[Netanyahu] spat in our face publicly”. So long as the Netanyahu government does not feel the threat of possible American condemnation of its repeated insults of the Obama administration, and while it remains secure in the unconditional support it receives from its allies in Congress, the pro-Israel lobby, and the American Right, Netanyahu will not feel the incentive to adapt his attitude.
Implications for the Future
Netanyahu should not excessively rely on the clout of Israel’s political supporters in Washington, however. As NSC Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan pertinently pointed out, “there will be a price” for Netanyahu’s actions. President Obama, she noted, has 18 months left in his second presidential term. For former American Ambassador to Israel—and Netanyahu confidant--Martin Indyk, the current rift between Washington and the Israeli leadership is as great as it has ever been, reminiscent of the Eisenhower Administration’s confrontation with the Israeli government’s participation in the 1956 tripartite aggression against Egypt.
Democratic Party member and Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described Netanyahu’s address to Congress as an “insult to the intelligence of the United States”, adding that she was “saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation”. These reactions were shared by the American public, with a recent poll by CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) showing that 63% of Americans were opposed to Netanyahu speaking before Congress during his last visit to Washington. This compares to data from the same poll which shows that 66% of the American public want their country to be impartial in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the fact that 29% of respondents described themselves as supportive of Israel, compared to only 2% who described themselves as pro-Palestinian.
Even some Israeli analysts and politicians concurred that Netanyahu’s speech before Congress damaged the strategic alliance between the two countries, and that the Israeli prime minister’s determination to secure more electoral support ahead of the upcoming Knesset elections, threaten to break the strong relationship which has historically bound the two countries. Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli Foreign Minister and current head of Netanyahu’s electoral rivals the Zionist Union Party, has claimed that Israel’s former status as a “strong country, an ally of the United States” was destroyed when “Netanyahu decided to ruin that for his political ends”. In reality, however, it is not the Israeli-American relationship that is in danger, but Netanyahu’s personal relationship with the Obama Administration, which is likely to have an impact on his electoral standing.
That Israeli-American relations are experiencing unprecedented tensions is clear, but any inference that this spells the end of such a solid alliance is far-fetched. Reality suggests that even the Obama administration’s threats to end Israel’s status of impunity within the United Nations Security Council are hollow. Whilst Susan Rice was condemning Netanyahu’s acceptance of John Boehner’s invitation to speak in front of Congress, John Kerry was giving an impassioned defense of Israel at the UN’s Human Rights Council, accusing the representatives of other member states of an “obsessive” attachment to “allegations” of Israeli war crimes. And while the Obama Administration declined to send “very high ranking” emissaries to attend the annual meeting of AIPAC, the main US Israeli lobby, the White House was represented by National Security Adviser Susan Rice and US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, reflecting the depth of the bond between Washington and Tel Aviv – this in spite of all the political damage caused by Netanyahu.
This Assessment Report was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on March 10, 2015, please click here.