Netanyahu Delivered Just What Obama Feared

Netanyahu Delivered Just What Obama Feared

Israel’s prime minister delivered a sober reminder of the risks of dealing with Iran—and painted Obama as naive in the process.

 Netanyahu was hailed in the House chamber like a conquering hero. The moment felt, well, presidential.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol. At the risk of further straining the relationship between Israel and the Obama administration, Netanyahu warned members of Congress against what he considers an ill-advised nuclear deal with Iran.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

March 3, 2015 Congressional Republicans haven’t had many victories in their lasting conflict with President Obama, but Tuesday brought one. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s somber, provocative speech to Congress checked all the boxes.

It called into question the efficacy of any deal the administration might strike with Iran over its nuclear program; it likely renewed momentum for another round of Iranian sanctions on the Hill; it positioned the GOP politically as the party more worried about Israeli security, and, despite the White House’s best efforts, made the president appear petty and churlish.

Obama, in an interview with Reuters, had dismissed the speech as a “distraction,” and aides made sure everyone knew he would be too busy to watch it. But if the president didn’t cast an eye at a TV, he might have been the only person in Washington not to. And that’s the problem.

For weeks, the White House has worked steadily to write the speech off as a thinly veiled Republican ploy to undermine the delicate negotiations with Iran. But network coverage treated it for what it was: the head of state of a critical ally delivering a controversial address on American soil. That served the interests of both House Speaker John Boehner, who was the impetus behind the speech, and Netanyahu, elevating both of them while key Democrats such as Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren stayed offstage.

 Netanyahu was hailed in the House chamber like a conquering hero. The moment felt, well, presidential. He smartly rose to the occasion by taking time to thank Obama’s various and sometimes under-publicized efforts on Israel’s behalf. “I will always be grateful to President Obama for that support,” he said.

Then, to little surprise, he quickly reminded Congress and the public at large of Iranian threats to annihilate Israel and kill its citizens. But beyond that, he painted a picture of a global, existential struggle against religious extremism using the kind of loaded language that Obama won’t touch. He said Iran is a regime “hijacked by religious zealots” who are on an ideological mission to wage “jihad.”

Netanyahu suggested that “Western diplomats”—such as Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who is driving the talks—are naive and are being charmed and duped by feints toward a nuclear agreement. The Iranian regime will always be “an enemy” of America. “Don’t be fooled,” he said. He said Iran is no different than ISIS, even though Iranian forces are fighting now to free the Iraqi city of Tikrit. “The enemy of your enemy is your enemy,” he said.

In that context, Netanyahu argued that any deal struck by Obama and Kerry would fail to significantly slow Iran’s nuclear program and instead would “guarantee” that Tehran would obtain nuclear weapons. He profoundly disagreed with administration assessments on how soon Iran could build a bomb if it chose to break the compact with the United States and its allies. He was dismissive of Obama’s belief that it isn’t realistic to expect Iran to completely dismantle its program.

The potential deal, Netanyahu said, “does not block Iran’s path to the bomb. It paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

He called on the West to keep sanctions in place until Iran shifts in tone and behavior. “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country,” he said. “This is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.” That prompted an ovation.

In short, Netanyahu accomplished everything Republicans wanted and the White House feared. Polls show that the American public is skeptical of Iran’s motives in striking a deal, and the Israeli prime minister stoked those suspicions. Obama has taken a large—and likely a legacy-defining—risk in advocating for the talks. And Netanyahu reminded the world of just how large a risk it is.

The president’s challenge in that regard just got tougher. And it doesn’t help that he didn’t bother to engage with Netanyahu at all. In the interview with Reuters, Obama clung to the notion that he didn’t want to affect the outcome of Israeli elections in two weeks, even as he suggested that Netanyahu’s judgment with regard to Iran couldn’t be trusted.

Yes, the speech to Congress was, at heart, a propaganda piece, one carefully orchestrated by Obama’s adversaries. But that didn’t make it any less effective. And it was one whose aftereffects this White House could be feeling for a long time.

Netanyahu ‘spat in our face,’ White House officials say

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Netanyahu ‘spat in our face,’ White House officials say

PM ‘will pay price’ for spat over Congress address; Obama said to have asked him to tone down pro-sanctions rhetoric; Wash. Post: Kerry’s enthusiasm for defending Israel may wane

BY TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF January 23, 2015, 9:21 am 330

NEWSROOM

The White House’s outrage over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to speak before Congress in March — a move he failed to coordinate with the administration — began to seep through the diplomatic cracks on Friday, with officials telling Haaretz the Israeli leader had “spat” in President Barack Obama’s face.

“We thought we’ve seen everything,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed senior US official as saying. “But Bibi managed to surprise even us.

“There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price,” he said.

Officials in Washington said that the “chickenshit” epithet — with which an anonymous administration official branded Netanyahu several months ago — was mild compared to the language used in the White House when news of Netanyahu’s planned speech came in.

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In his address the Israeli leader is expected to speak about stalled US-led nuclear negotiations with Iran, and to urge lawmakers to slap Tehran with a new round of tougher sanctions in order to force it to comply with international demands. The Mossad intelligence service on Thursday went to the rare length of issuing a press statement to deny claims, cited by Kerry, that its chief Tamir Pardo had told visiting US politicians that he opposed further sanctions.

Haaretz reported that Obama had personally demanded that Netanyahu tone down his pro-sanctions rhetoric in a phone call between the two last week. The president has said a sanctions bill would cripple negotiations with Iranian leaders at a critical stage, and has threatened to veto such a bill should it come through.

The Washington Post reported that Netanyahu’s apparent disrespect for the US leadership was particularly offensive to Secretary of State John Kerry, who over the past month had made frenzied efforts on Israel’s behalf on the world stage — making dozens of calls to world leaders to convince them to oppose a UN Security Council resolution which would have set a timeframe for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“The secretary’s patience is not infinite,” a source close to Kerry told the Post. “The bilateral relationship is unshakable. But playing politics with that relationship could blunt Secretary Kerry’s enthusiasm for being Israel’s primary defender.”

The White House said Thursday that Obama would not meet with Netanyahu when he travels to Washington, with a spokeswoman citing a “long-standing practice and principle” by which the president does not meet with heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections. Kerry will also not meet with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu will be in Washington in part for a March 3 address to a joint session of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the Obama administration.

The White House initially reacted icily to Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress, an appearance apparently meant to bolster opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran as it is currently shaping up, as well as opposition to new sanctions against Tehran.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Wednesday that Netanyahu and Boehner had broken with protocol in not informing Obama of the prime minister’s travel plans.

“We haven’t heard from the Israelis directly about the trip at all,” he said, adding the White House would “reserve judgment” about any possible face-to-face meeting until explanations are made.

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“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he is traveling there. That is certainly how President Obama’s trips are planned,” explained Earnest.

“So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

Speaking several hours after Earnest, top US diplomat Kerry said Netanyahu was welcome to give a speech at “any time” in the United States. But Kerry agreed it had been a “little unusual” to hear about the Israeli leader’s speech to US Congress next month from the office of Boehner and not via the usual diplomatic channels.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, said that Boehner blundered when he invited Netanyahu to address Congress amid sensitive negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program and in the shadow of Israel’s elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with US president Barack Obama, at the White House, Washington DC on October 01, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

“If that’s the purpose of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit two weeks before his own election, right in the midst of our negotiations, I just don’t think it’s appropriate and helpful,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday at her weekly news conference. The speech, Pelosi suggested, could give Netanyahu a political boost in elections a few weeks later and inflame international talks aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel is scheduled to hold elections on March 17.

Netanyahu confirmed Thursday that he would address Congress in early March. He was initially slated to speak on February 11, but changed the date so he could attend the AIPAC conference.

“The Prime Minister is expected to arrive in the US at the beginning of March and will also participate in the AIPAC conference,” read a statement from the PMO. “The speech in front of both houses of Congress will give the prime minister the opportunity to thank President Barack Obama, Congress, and the American people for their support of Israel.

“I look forward to the opportunity to express before the joint session Israel’s vision for a joint effort to deal with [Islamist terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program], and to emphasize Israel’s commitment to the special bond between our two democracies,” Netanyahu said, according to the statement.

Israel and the United States are close allies, but personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu have reportedly deteriorated over the years.

The pair have publicly clashed over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and about how to tackle Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

Obama’s allies fear Netanyahu’s March trip could be used by Israel and by Republicans to rally opposition to a nuclear deal, undercutting years of sensitive negotiations just as they appear poised to bear fruit.

In November the already faltering ties between the leaders were served a new blow when an anonymous US official was quoted calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit” in an article published by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in the American magazine The Atlantic. The article portrayed the rift between the United States and Israel as a “full-blown crisis.”