As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embarked on his trip to the United States on Sunday, March 1, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry and Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH argued about Netanyahu’s upcoming Joint Address to Congress on different political talk shows. Boehner appeared Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” while Kerry was on ABC’s This Week. Kerry has been trying to downplay the tensions between the US and Israel, just as the US plans to finalize their deal with Iran about their nuclear program, and Netanyahu addresses Congress where he will warn the country and world about Iran’s dangers, and that the deal will not be enough to stop Iran. President Barack Obama is trying to undermine Netanyahu’s effectiveness, playing up his administration’s record on Israel. While the boycott is not great enough to drown out the support the Israeli Prime Minister still has in Washington, and in the end, all the administration and Democrats appear is in a petty to fight with a staunch ally.
On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Speaker Boehner accused President Obama and his administration of ruining the relationship between the US-Israel over the planned speech. Boehner pointed out that “The animosity between the White House and the prime minister is no secret in this town. But they’ve certainly made it worse in the last five weeks or six weeks.” Contradicting what the administration that has been criticizing and key officials and Congressional Democrats planning to boycott Boehner pointed out that Netanyahu’s address will be full. Boehner said, “The demand for tickets; the demand for seats in the House- I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody wants to be there. What I do wonder is why the White House feels threatened because the Congress wants to support Israel and wants to hear what a trusted ally has to say.” Boehner calls the White House’s opposition “frankly remarkable.” The speaker stood up for Netanyahu’s position, saying, “It just doesn’t strike me that the deal is going to be good enough. We’re not going to resolve this issue by sticking our heads in the sand.”
Secretary Kerry appearing on the ABC’s This Week played the good hypocrite, downplaying the tension between the two countries. The secretary of state tried to portray to the public that he is on good terms with Netanyahu, saying, “The prime minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the United States, obviously. I talk to the prime minister regularly, including yesterday.” Kerry spoke with Netanyahu on the phone before the prime minister left to the US. The administration, which has been at the forefront of politicizing Netanyahu’s speech, ironically Kerry expressed “we don’t want to see this turned into some great political football.” Still Kerry accused the speaker of politicizing the invitation and speech, “It was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process, but the administration is not seeking to politicize this.”
Kerry noted the bottom line is Israel and the US share the same goal making sure Iran cannot gain nuclear capability, “We want to recognize the main goal here is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And on that, Israel and the United States agree.” Kerry also attempted to make it seem that US-Israeli relationship is solid, despite the tension over the address, “We have a closer relationship with Israel right now in terms of security than at any time in history. I was reviewing the record the other day – we have intervened on Israel’s behalf, in the last two years, more than several hundred – a couple of hundred times in over 75 different forums in order to protect Israel.”
The White House continued their goodwill propaganda sending out an email “5 things you need to know about the US-Israel relationship under President Obama” touting everything the president has done for Israel. The fact sheet’s release is meant to get circulation among the over 16,000 attending American Israel Public Affairs Committee AIPAC conference, and as an offensive rebuttal to anything Netanyahu plans to say in his speech to AIPAC on Monday and then Congress on Tuesday. The fact sheet boasted, “Under President Obama’s leadership, American engagement with Israel has grown and strengthened to an unprecedented degree. From meeting frequently with Israeli leaders to ensuring that Israel remains the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, the President is deeply committed to helping Israel maintain its strength and security.”
President Obama had been planning ways to undermine the prime minister, Kerry’s interview acted as a rebuttal even before Netanyahu spoke, attempted to make Israel the more aggressive, and the Republicans the more partisan on this issue. Kerry’s comments were more tempered than his remarks earlier in the week, when he testified at House Foreign Affairs Committee, questioning Netanyahu past judgment on Iraq, saying “He may have a judgment that just may not be correct here.” While National Security Advisor Susan Rice in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS declared that Netanyahu’s speech is “destructive of the fabric of the relationship.” To top it all off according to the Wall Street Journal, the White House views “Netanyahu as a serious threat to President Barack Obama’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear program.” The administration tried to put on a cordial and compromising public persona, while behind the scenes the rhetoric is extremely hostile to Israel, especially Netanyahu.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee spoke to CNN’s “State of the Union” about Netanyahu’s speech and she was far from conciliatory like Kerry. Feinstein, who is Jewish felt she can more easier criticize Netanyahu and his position because of that. Two of the lawmakers boycotting the address are Jewish, showing how much the speech has become a “political football,” and more about the differences between Republicans and Democrats especially in Congress. Feinstein indicated, “Since he is coming, I intend to go, and will listen respectively. I don’t intend to jump up and down.” She pointed out however, “He doesn’t speak for me on this,” and called him “arrogant.” Continuing Feinstein expressed, “I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly, I think Israel is a nation that needs to be protected, that needs to stand free.”
The Israeli prime ministers has tried to emphasize that his speech is not an affront to President Obama, but rather about a higher and greater purpose, Israel’s national’s security. Netanyahu told the press after praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Saturday, “I would like to take this opportunity to say that I respect US President Barack Obama. I believe in the strength of the relations between Israel and the United States. That strength will prevail over differences of opinion, those in the past and those yet to come.” With that out of the way Netanyahu justified the importance of what he will tell Congress, “As prime minister of Israel it is my duty to care for the security of Israel. That is why we strongly oppose the agreement emerging between Iran and the world powers which could endanger our very existence. In the face of this danger we must unite and also explain the dangers stemming from this agreement, to Israel, to the region and to the world.”
Speaking at the at Ben Gurion airport before departing on Sunday morning, Netanyahu reiterated the importance of his speech, calling it a “crucial and even historical mission.” The Israeli prime minister said, “I feel I am representing all the citizens of Israel, even those who do not agree with me. I feel a deep and sincere concern for the safety of all the citizens of Israel and the fate of the state and the fate of our people. I will do everything in my power to secure our future.” Netanyahu also tweeted his sentiments, “We are strongly opposed to the agreement being formulated between the world powers and Iran that could endanger Israel’s very existence.”
Netanyahu, who is only in the country for 48 hours, first addressing the AIPAC conference on Monday, March 2 before addressing Congress on Tuesday, March 3. So far, 27 Congressional representatives and 5 Senators are boycotting Netanyahu’s address. Vice President Joe Biden is not attending he will be in Guatemala; Kerry will be in Geneva, Switzerland meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. They will be negotiating and finalizing the framework deal with Iran, which has to be done before the end of the month, and President Obama has no plans to attend as well. Obama has stated that it is too close to the Israel’s March 17 elections that he might be interfering in the outcome should he meet with Netanyahu and would do the same with any American ally in the same position.
The administration and Democrats are using the excuse that Boehner did not consult with them about the address during the negotiation process and that it is so close to the Israel’s election on March 17 as the reason for their opposition and boycotts. In reality the White House’s distain for Netanyahu has taken over when it comes to rationality in the US-Israel relationship, and Obama has been trying to underlying interfere with Israel elections, to rid himself of dealing further with Netanyahu. A former US official summed up the growing frost in the relationship, saying “Sure, when Netanyahu calls the White House, Obama will answer. But how fast will he be about responding (to a crisis)?”
Although the tension and friction between the two leaders with divergent political viewpoints and clashing personalities has been six years in the making, the speech is only the aftermath of the greater divide between the two leaders. Just this weekend a Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported on Saturday, Feb. 28 that Netanyahu was planning to attack Iran in 2014, when one of his cabinet ministers told US Secretary of State John Kerry about the attack, then the whole plan fell apart with Obama threatening to strike down any Israeli jet than flies over Iranian airspace. The White House and National Security Council denied any credibility to those reports, tweeting, “Like a lot rumors lately about Iran talks, there is no truth to ‘reports’ about Obama & Israeli jets.” Ironically, President Obama has been risking the US’s close relationship with Israel, for a country whose people killed effigies of him in their streets.
The address, which has become a partisan issue pitting Republicans versus Democrats in Washington is doing the same in the rest of the country a new Wall Street Journal / NBC News poll finds 48 percent of Americans oppose Netanyahu’s address. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Republicans and conservative have been staunch supporters of the speech, not only because of support for Israel, but because of the threat of a dangerous deal with Iran. Former 2008 Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is selling through her SarahPAC a “I Stand with Bibi” t-shirt, while support also abounded for Netanyahu and Israel at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that just ended on Saturday from many of the potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates.
Netanyahu, views Iran as Israel’s biggest threat, and intends to use his Congressional address to criticize the ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 nations, Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany with Iran about their nuclear weapons program, calling for a deal that only rids Iran of all its nuclear capabilities including all their centrifuges. The Israeli prime minister is also intending to reveal details of the planned nuclear agreement and convince Congress that they should pass additional sanctions to pressure Iran into the best deal.
One of Netanyahu’s advisors gave some insight to the media Sunday evening, as Netanyahu arrived in Washington about what Netanyahu will discuss to Congress. The official specified, “We know many details from the agreement being put together, details that we feel members of Congress are unaware of. According to the information we have, the deal currently taking shape will leave Iran with the capability to build a nuclear weapon, if Khamenei make a decision to do so.” The advisor said “The prime minister is here to warn, in front of any stage possible, the dangers” of the deal that may be taking shape.”
The Senate has been holding off until later in the month on a bipartisan bill that would ramp up sanctions on Iran should a deal not be made by the June 30 deadline. President Obama has promised to veto it, Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council announced on Saturday, Feb. 28 “The president has been clear that now is not the time for Congress to pass additional legislation on Iran. If this bill is sent to the president, he will veto it.” Republican Senator Bob Corker responded that it is “disappointing that the president feels he is the only one who speaks for the citizens of our country.” President Obama seems to believe the nobody in the entire world knows better about Iran than his administration who all agrees with his position.
Despite the glaring absences, Boehner promised there would still be a full house; all Congressional leaders from both parties are still attending. After his morning address Netanyahu will have a private meeting Tuesday afternoon with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY and Senate Minority Harry Reid, D-NV, before returning to Israel.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.