Quotes of the day

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows what’s in a potential nuclear agreement with Iran and will ask the U.S. Congress to pose questions that may delay a deal, according to an official traveling with him…

Obama administration officials have said an attempt by Congress to intervene would wreck chances for an accord between Iran and world powers and the president would veto such a measure. Netanyahu will tell lawmakers they should press for a delay in a deadline at the end of this month to agree on the framework for a deal and should change the agreement if they aren’t satisfied with it, the official traveling with the prime minister said…

“We don’t want to see this turned into some great political football,” Kerry said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program.


When President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office early in 2009, there were plenty of reasons to expect their relationship would be difficult.

The cerebral president and the brash prime minister have stark differences in personality, politics and world view.

Still, few could have predicted the downward spiral of backbiting, lecturing and outright name-calling that has occurred.

Start with the differences between Obama and Netanyahu, add in disagreements over Iran’s nuclear program, a Republican-led Congress trying to assert itself and the coming Israeli elections, and it becomes “the perfect storm of potential broken crockery in the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” says the Wilson Center’s Aaron Miller, who was a Mideast adviser and negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations.


Earnest said Obama had laid out “a clear strategy” to stop Iran, while Netanyahu hadn’t…

Earnest also said he does not believe Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal “will have much of impact on the ultimate outcome.”

He said “he doesn’t believe” Obama watched Netanyahu’s speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, DC, earlier that day, nor did he think Obama would watch Netanyahu’s speech to Congress Tuesday.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to deliver one of the most controversial speeches to a joint session of Congress by a foreign leader ever, and Vice President Biden and [47 congressional] Democrats won’t be attending.

Netanyahu is expected to criticize the White House’s negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in his March 3 speech. While Biden has cited a scheduling conflict, other Democrats are staying away from the speech to protest what they see as an attack on President Obama…

Democrats face a difficult decision on whether to attend the address. Many will want to show support for the White House but will be wary of snubbing the leader of an important U.S. ally.


Plenty of outsiders — from lobbyists to constituents — are eager to see Netanyahu speak; an aide for Speaker John A. Boehner told CQ Roll Call that at least 350 requests are being fielded by the Ohio Republican’s office.

“I don’t expect many empty seats on the floor,” the aide said. “This is a big draw.”

But the fact that many Jewish, progressive and African-American Democrats are protesting the speech has set off something of a frenzy for extra tickets (each member gets at least one to give to a constituent or other guest).

A House Democratic aide said the lawmaker she works for has fielded multiple calls from colleagues asking whether the member is attending and, if not, if that ticket is available.


“I went out to play golf — I never play golf — with three of my Jewish buddies,” recalled Representative Alan Lowenthal, a Jewish Democrat from Southern California who only this weekend decided he will attend Mr. Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress. “One said, ‘You must go,’ one said, ‘You definitely should not go,’ and one said, ‘I’m in the middle.’ That literally reflects the American Jewish community.”…

“It’s a tipping-point moment,” said Rabbi John Rosove, an outspoken liberal and head of Temple Israel of Hollywood. “It’s no longer the Israeli government, right or wrong. The highest form of patriotism and loyalty is to criticize from a place of love.”…

“I stand with Israel, always have stood with Israel, and always will, but this speech is not about Israel,” said Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, who accused the prime minister of politicking in Congress with an eye on Israel’s March 17 election. “Netanyahu is not Israel just like George W. Bush wasn’t America.”


But while this argument may address Netanyahu’s personal partisan calculus for accepting Boehner’s invitation, it still fails to explain why he thought the Israeli public would reward him for exacerbating the rift with the U.S. To understand this, we have to consider what’s on the forefront of Israelis’ mind ahead of the country’s elections: not Iran, not security, but the economy.

According to a poll released Sunday by Israel’s Channel 10, 56 percent of Israelis said that what they care most about is the country’s “high cost of living.” Only 27 percent said the security threat…

This means that even though the prime minister’s scheduled speech may have brought U.S.–Israel relations to an all-time nadir, Netanyahu can still consider it as an effective smoke screen—even at the cost of creating a rift with the White House. To put it bluntly, every day in which Netanyahu manages to deflect conversation away from the economy is a good day for him.  

“Obama is our best campaigner,” an unnamed member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party told Yossi Verter of Haaretz over the weekend. “Last time around, the Palestinians and their bombings did our job for us. Now it’s the president of the United States.” So far, Netanyahu’s gamble appears to have paid off, but only barely: 42 percent of Israelis said they were in favor of his speech and 37 percent said they were against it, according to Israel Radio. He may be hoping that this break-even support for the speech, coupled with glowing reviews after will be enough to quell voters’ economic concerns and guarantee him a next term in office. 


One of the reasons Obama administration officials have reacted with such pique to the Netanyahu speech is that they know he is an effective speaker, and they understand that they may, in any case, have a hard time selling a nuclear deal to Congress, and to an American public, predisposed to dislike and distrust Iran.

But let’s look at what would happen if Netanyahu “wins” this battle. Indyk lays out a depressing scenario:

“What happens if the president succeeds in doing a deal despite the speech of the prime minister?” he asks. “Instead of the United States and Israel talking about ways to provide strategic reassurance to Israel, there’s going to be an ongoing fight over this deal. And what if the prime minister then succeeds in killing the deal? How will the president relate to the destruction of one of his signature policy initiatives? And if the sanctions then collapse, as seems likely, and Iran continues moving towards a nuclear weapon, how does the prime minister propose to stop Iran? He will certainly manage in the process to create the impression that he wants the United States to go to war with Iran. I don’t think the American people, in their war-weary state, will appreciate that.”


Still, with the pundits in Jerusalem and Washington writing endlessly about the irreparable damage being done to the special U.S.-Israel relationship, it is important to seek some historic perspective.  In 1948, as David Ben Gurion was preparing to declare independence for a Jewish state for the first time in two thousand years, he received word from the State Department that it would be best to delay the announcement to allow time for more negotiations with the world powers and our Arab neighbors.  Ben Gurion of course declined to heed this advice.  He was later reprimanded by the Americans in 1949 for declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital.

In May of 1967 Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, enforcing a naval blockade on Israel, ordered the international UN peacekeepers out of the Sinai desert, and began amassing his armies on our southern border.  Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was told by the Johnson Administration not to attack, but rather to give time for a possible diplomatic solution.  Thankfully, Eshkol did not wait too long and Israel’s preemptive attack on the Egyptian and Syrian armies ensured the very survival of the Jewish state.

Similarly, in 1981 Prime Minister Menachem Begin warned the Reagan administration that Iraq was building a nuclear reactor southeast of Baghdad.  While Saddam Hussein contented that the reactor was only for peaceful civilian use, it was clear to Israeli intelligence that Iraq was developing a military nuclear program. Prime Minister Begin ordered air strikes to destroy the reactors and was subsequently condemned unanimously by the UN Security Council – including the American representative…

[N]one of these isolated incidents induced long-term damage to the American-Israeli relationship.


“America and Israel are more than friends. We’re like a family. … And we must always remember that we are family,” Netanyahu told the audience of 16,000 at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, receiving one of many standing ovations…

“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the state office that he holds. I have great respect for both,” Netanyahu said. “The last thing I would want is for Israel to become a partisan issue. Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always be made a bipartisan issue.”…

“American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country,” Netanyahu said. “I think that encapsulates the difference.”


“I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there is still time to avert them.”