Cheers for Netanyahu Speech, But Trouble for Israel in Washington

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 3, 2015. Gary Cameron/Reuters

"Who the fuck does he think he is?" Bill Clinton said. It was the summer of 1996, and the president had just met Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time. Clinton thought they would talk about advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, but the newly elected Israeli prime minister used the occasion to lecture him about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Who's the fucking superpower here?" Clinton fumed, according to a memoir by Aaron David Miller, one of the president's advisers. The president, Miller recalled, found Netanyahu's performance patronizing and overbearing.

Some things haven't changed much. This week, Netanyahu was back in Washington and virtually telling another American president what to do. And just as he once tried to mobilize Congress against Clinton for urging a compromise with the Palestinians, the Israeli leader is now using a similar approach to thwart what he sees as Barack Obama's naive push for a nuclear accord with Iran. In his most audacious lecture yet, Netanyahu told a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday that Obama's reported readiness to accept a decade-long deal that would allow Tehran to maintain its enrichment facilities "all but guarantees" that Iran will get the bomb, posing an unacceptable threat to Israel and the world.

Standing at the House lectern and reading from a tall stack of notes, the Israeli leader urged American lawmakers to pass veto-proof legislation that would tighten sanctions against Iran and restrict Obama's foreign policy-making powers, making an agreement with Tehran impossible. "This is a bad deal, a very bad deal," he said. "We're better off without it." Republicans roared with approval, while Democrats mostly sat on their hands, feeling perhaps a bit the way Clinton did in '96. "I was near tears throughout the prime minister's speech—saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States...and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran," House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in a statement.

Roughly two decades after Netanyahu and Clinton first met, the Israeli prime minister remains just as audacious, but the stakes have changed. For years, Israeli pundits have assumed that anyone who strains relations with the White House would lose at the ballot box. Netanyahu may genuinely think the Iranian deal is a bad one. But his decision to come to Washington to make his case—rather than lobby Congress behind closed doors—seems to indicate a gamble—that directly confronting Obama may help him win an unprecedented fourth term in Israel's March 17 elections. But if Netanyahu is successful—a likely outcome—and he continues to defy the American president on Iran, the relationship between Israel and the U.S. will likely remain a tense one.

Netanyahu began his speech with full-throated praise for Obama and the assistance that he has provided Israel—a clear sign he was aware that he needed to balance his criticism with some degree of deference and respect. But once he exhausted his kind words, Netanyahu was unabashed in blasting Obama's Iran policy.

His speech was hardly over when signs of trouble appeared. As lawmakers and guests filed out of the chamber, some senior Democrats didn't hesitate to voice how terrible they felt it went. "I thought the speech was a pretty big stick in the eye of the president, and it was counterproductive to the long-term U.S.-Israeli relationship," Democrat Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Newsweek.

Democrat Gerald Connolly of Virginia, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, went further. "Mr. Netanyahu's behavior over the past six years has opened up fissures in American public opinion, and among strong pro-Israel supporters, that will be very difficult to close," he said. "For short-term political gain…he has raised some very serious long-term questions that are not helpful to Israel or to the relationship. And frankly, I worry a lot about that."

Netanyahu's address could ultimately help him keep his job. The speech, broadcast live during dinnertime in Israel, gave him valuable prime-time exposure. Some analysts say Netanyahu's trip to Washington could give his right-wing Likud party a lift in the country's closely contested elections. The political dynamics in Israel also work in the prime minister's favor. Today, polls show that a majority of Israelis lean right when it comes to dealing with Iran and the Palestinians. The same polls show that Israelis regard Obama as less trustworthy than his predecessors, Clinton and George W. Bush. And a majority of Israelis disagree with Obama about signing a nuclear deal with Iran.

Yet even if Netanyahu's speech helps him politically in the short term, in the long term it could poison relations with the U.S. Though Washington and Jerusalem have strong military and intelligence ties, the differences between Netanyahu and Obama on Iran underscore the limits of Israel and America's shared interests. Israel, a small country with many enemies in the Middle East, has for years been the target of Iranian-backed terrorism. Its leaders take Tehran's threats to annihilate the Jewish state very seriously. The country also sits well within the range of Iranian ballistic missiles.

The U.S. is militarily much more powerful than Iran, not to mention much further away. And while Washington has long been fighting a proxy war with the Islamic Republic for influence in the Middle East, Tehran isn't seen as a threat at home. "American leaders worry about the security of their country," Netanyahu told a gathering of pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington. "Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country."

U.S. support for Israel has always enjoyed the broad backing of Democrats and Republicans. But because of the way Netanyahu's speech came about, partisanship has now infected America's alliance with the Jewish state. Both the White House and congressional Democrats were peeved that House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran without first consulting the Oval Office. As a result, Vice President Joe Biden, who also presides over the Senate, was conveniently out of town during the spectacle, while Obama refused to meet with his Israeli counterpart. In a pointed rebuke to both Boehner and Netanyahu, 57 Democrats—eight senators and 49 House members—ultimately boycotted the speech.

Nevertheless, as he addressed the floor, the Israeli prime minister was unrelenting in his condemnation of Obama's diplomatic efforts with the Islamic Republic. He said the deal being negotiated would not only permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon but also free the country from sanctions, thereby enabling the mullahs in Tehran to better finance terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, along with Yemen's new Shiite Houthi rulers and the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria. He dismissed Iran's assistance in the fight against ISIS, saying Tehran and ISIS were two sides of the same, radical Islamist dinar. "In this case," he quipped, "the enemy of my enemy is my enemy."

Perhaps the most ominous part of Netanyahu's speech came toward the end when he referred to the Holocaust and the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. "The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies are over," he said. "For the first time in 100 generations, we can defend ourselves."

In that remark, some lawmakers said they heard a threat by Netanyahu—to take unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear facilities in the event of an American agreement. Yet in another sign of the difficulties that might lie ahead for the U.S.-Israel alliance, some Democrats said such a move would only further isolate Jerusalem. "Netanyahu has never favored a negotiated approach," said Connolly. "I fear that Netanyahu would take America and Israel down a path that inevitably leads to a military confrontation. But I don't think the American people prefer that alternative."

After the speech ended, Obama quickly indicated he would not tolerate congressional interference in the negotiations with Tehran, an effort he considers his foreign policy priority and potentially part of his legacy. "Foreign policy," he said, "runs through the executive branch and the president, not through other channels."

And in a sign that Israel and the U.S. would likely remain divided on Iran's nuclear program, Obama also pushed back against Netanyahu, saying, "On the core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon...the prime minister didn't offer any viable alternative."

It was a polite way of reminding Bibi who the superpower really is.