If recent history is any indication, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to receive a number of standing ovations when he speaks before Congress on Tuesday to warn lawmakers about what he predicts will be a “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear program.
But just as members of Congress are voting with their feet whether to attend the controversial speech that the Obama administration has deemed “destructive” to U.S.-Israel ties, Israeli voters are preparing to vote with their ballots as they narrow down their choices ahead of national elections exactly two weeks later, on March 17.
The diplomatic tempest over Netanyahu’s address, which comes at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner without any coordination with the White House, is also casting a cloud over Israel’s internal debate, with politicians and pundits speaking about little else.
Some analysts say the storm of attention may actually help Netanyahu, who has built himself a reputation as “Mr. Security” since he took the premiership for the second time in 2009 (He was elected for a third term in 2013). Conservative voters who feel Israel must never compromise its defense by relying too heavily upon others believe that even the so-called “special relationship” with the United States should be kept in check. This rightist constituency likes the idea of a leader who will defy what they perceive as pressure from Washington and Europeans capitals to make concessions, whether to the Palestinians next door or to the Iranians in a deal on nuclear enrichment.
“He’s actually speaking the language this audience wants to hear,” says Professor Reuven Hazan, the chair of the political science department at the Hebrew University. “It’s beautiful politicking ... Two weeks before the election he is setting the agenda on Iran, which is where he wants it, and not on housing prices. It is increasingly perceived in this audience that Obama wants to reach an agreement at all costs, and Netanyahu will get a free hour of prime time across all the networks to broadcast that message.”
But it's not just political expediency driving Netanyahu to Washington, says Gideon Rahat, a senior associate at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. “It’s his deep belief that Obama doesn't understand the cruel world outside and he’s trying to be too nice."
No matter how pure Netanyahu's ideological motives are for speaking to Congress, the speech could end up hurting him. Critics in Israel and elsewhere say Netanyahu’s decision to speak Tuesday is turning support for Israel into a partisan issue, pitting Democrats against Republicans and threatening the relationship with Israel’s most valued ally. Among these are Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of more than 200 retired officers who chimed into the chorus of critique over Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress against the wishes of the Obama administration. On Sunday they held a press conference at which they said Netanyahu had gone off course.
“We decided that we need to publicly give our opinion — that the prime minister’s current policy is destroying the covenant with the United States,” said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amnon Reshef. “The way to stop a nuclear Iran is by strengthening ties between countries, between the U.S. and Israel, between Israel an the international community.”
Amiram Levin, a former northern commander in the IDF, offered that he’d known Netanyahu as a young soldier and had taught him how to navigate while serving in an elite army unit. “I tell him now, Bibi you are navigating incorrectly,” Levin said, using the prime minister’s nickname. “The target is Tehran, not Washington.”
Such censure must surely sting, but Netanyahu left for the U.S. capital Sunday smiling and insisting that his was a “fateful, even historic, mission.” Indeed, his own political fate could be determined by this speech, just days before a national ballot that he himself called when he fired several of his ministers last November. Recent polls show that his rivals in the Zionist Union, an alliance of the Labor Party under the leadership of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni of Hatnua, have a slight lead over Netanyahu’s Likud. Two centrist parties are siphoning away support from Netanyahu’s Likud base, as are parties further to the right of him led by Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman.
The strained U.S.-Israel relationship and the Iran nuclear issue are not the only factors weighing on Netanyahu's popularity, though. The premier has suffered from a string of mini-scandals pointing to excessive spending at his official and private residences, and personal use of public funds. Meanwhile, a report released last week indicated that a housing crisis in Israel is even more severe than previously realized, and found two consecutive Netanyahu administrations coming up short on solutions. Apartment prices jumped 55% from 2008-2013, the study found.
When asked for a reaction, the prime minister immediately turned back to his favorite subject. “When we talk about housing prices, about the cost of living, I do not for a second forget about life itself," he tweeted. "The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran.”