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Nearly everyone (apart from Congressional Republicans) seems to believe that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making a mistake in refusing to cancel his March 3 address to the U.S. Congress. In Israeli newspapers, veteran political columnists have expressed their disapproval with characteristic bluntness. Meir Dagan, the former Mossad director, accused the prime minister of pursuing “destructive” policies that undermine Israel’s security. Jewish-American journalists who usually express pro-Israel opinions are appalled that the prime minister has put them in the position of having to choose between loyalty to the Democratic Party (the majority of American Jews are Democrats) and Israel.
But Netanyahu won’t cancel, and there was never any chance that he would. He faces a national election on March 17; if he were to back down now, he would lose face with his core voters. He would also give the lie to his assertion, made repeatedly and with great vehemence, that he has a “sacred duty” to speak for the Jewish people about the danger that Iran’s nuclear program poses to Israel. And he would also jeopardize his alliance with the small group of fantastically wealthy Republican donors who have become some of his most important supporters.
The most prominent among these is Sheldon Adelson, the American casino billionaire. Adelson, who is a major donor to Republican and Israel-oriented causes and institutions. Adelson, who (together with his wife), donated approximately $350 million to Republican candidates in 2014, circumvented Israel’s draconian campaign donor laws by establishing his own pro-Netanyahu newspaper, Israel HaYom, which is a free daily that has become among the most widely-read newspapers in the country. Its editorial line is so unswervingly pro-Netanyahu that, in Israel, it is commonly referred to as the “Bibiton,” a portmanteau of the prime minister’s widely-used nickname, Bibi, and “iton,” the Hebrew word for newspaper.
Israel has for decades been a bipartisan political issue in U.S. domestic politics. Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to align himself overtly with the Republicans, and the first foreign leader since Winston Churchill to have been invited three times to address Congress. Netanyahu has so consistently made clear that he is pro-Republican that some in Israel jokingly call him “the Republican senator from the great state of Israel.” He made it clear that he supported Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election campaign, rather than taking the diplomatically neutral position maintained by his predecessors. His closest advisor and Israel’s current ambassador to Washington is Ron Dermer, a U.S.-born-and-educated former GOP operative who moved to Israel and became an Israeli citizen in the 1990s. Before he moved, Dermer worked for the American political consultant Frank Luntz to help design New Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” a manifesto released during the 1994 presidential election. Dermer continues to cultivate close relations with Republican lawmakers, and it was John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, who invited Netanyahu to address Congress about U.S. policy toward Iran.
The timing of the speech has enraged the Obama administration because it comes just three weeks before a crucial deadline for the delicate, multilateral talks with Iran. March 3 is also just two weeks before Israel holds a national election, which makes Netanyahu’s address to Congress look very much like a campaign stop. And it would probably be a successful one; when the prime minister spoke to the joint House in 2011, he received 29 standing ovations. That’s quite a visual for Israeli television audiences, right before an election.
On previous occasions, Netanyahu was invited to address Congress in consultation with, and with the approval of, the White House—as per protocol. This time, however, things are different. The enraged Obama staff have let it be known that the president and the secretary of state will not meet with the prime minster during his visit to Washington this week. Nor will the vice president, who, as Senate president, would normally attend such a speech, be in attendance on March 3. Biden’s people cited a scheduling conflict, but the 27 Democratic legislators who announced they will not attend have made it clear that they are absenting themselves in protest of what The Hill calls the “one of the most controversial speeches to a joint session of Congress by a foreign leader ever.” On the other hand, 58 Democrats have announced that they will be there. Israel has been a crucial bipartisan issue in U.S. politics for many, many years; not attending the speech could hurt their future election prospects.
Commentators are arguing about whether Netanyahu is damaging Israel’s security by alienating the Obama administration and turning Israel into a partisan issue in the United States. It seems unlikely that the White House will cut back on military aid or stop vetoing anti-Israel resolutions at the UN. The vast majority of Americans still see Israel as their best friend in the Middle East, the only democracy in the region, and a country that shares American values. Perhaps this attitude will change in a few years, but Netanyahu is not looking at the long term. And the Democrats would be understandably wary of testing popular loyalties during an election year. For now, Netanyahu just wants to make sure he is still Israel’s prime minister after the upcoming elections. And he wants to be seen as a figure who combines Churchill’s prescience and the qualities of an Old Testament King. So, if there are some empty seats when he addresses Congress, he’ll probably just shake his head and say afterward, “Look at those people who refused to listen to me when I tried to warn them about the Iran’s nuclear program and the mullahs’ plans to complete Hitler’s job. They chose loyalty to Barack Hussein Obama over concern for the survival of the Jewish people.” And he will probably convince just enough Israeli swing voters to cast their ballots for him that he’ll be in a position to form the next government.