Netanyahu angers President Obama

Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Prime Minister Netanyahu was invited by Republican Speaker John A. Boehner to speak before the Congress without consulting the White House in an effort to undercut the president, while Republicans faulted Obama for reacting with such hostility to the genuine concerns of an endangered ally.


With dark warnings and a call to action, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel used one of the world’s most prominent venues on 3rd March to denounce what he called a “bad deal” being negotiated with Iran and to mount an audacious challenge to President Obama.


In an extraordinary spectacle pitting the leaders of two close allies against each other, Netanyahu took the rostrum in the historic chamber of the House of Representatives to tell a joint meeting of Congress that instead of stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. President Obama’s diplomatic initiative “would all but guarantee” that it does, in turn setting off a regional arms race.


By accepting the Republican invitation to address Congress just a fortnight before he faces his own election in Israel on 17th March, Netanyahu has politicised an alliance that has had enduring bipartisan support even in polarised Washington, says another expert on the alliance, American University’s Guy Ziv.


Long-time congressional veterans could recall few if any precedents for such a confrontation by a foreign leader on Capitol Hill, or for such a partisan response. Most foreign dignitaries invited to speak to Congress are celebrated figures, like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, or leaders of American allies delivering unifying messages. Perhaps the closest parallel involved not a foreign leader but Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was invited to address Congress a week after President Harry S. Truman fired him in 1951.




An hour or so later and a handful of blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, Obama was meeting with his new Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, when he took questions from reporters about the address. He was blunt, grim and expansive in response.


Netanyahu, he said, had failed to offer anything new or propose any alternative means to end Iran’s nuclear weapons development.


But Obama went further, saying that in the past Netanyahu had been wrong in suggesting that Iran had failed to abide by the terms of an interim deal. He described a man who was not only intransigent, but willing to exaggerate his case.


When Netanyahu argued that Iran and ISIS are heads of the same beast, it began to sound awfully familiar, much like when George W. Bush argued that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein must be working together (and let’s not forget that Netanyahu was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War, which dramatically increased Iran’s power and influence in the Middle East).


This is the Republican foreign policy perspective, as much now as it ever was: there is only black and white, no complexity, no compromise, and all enemies are the same. Iran is literally fighting ISIS in Iraq right now, but Netanyahu wants everyone to believe that they’re going to join together to take over the world. “When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy,” he said. Matt Duss, the head of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, called it the Islamist Voltron Theory.


The real problem came, however, when Netanyahu began to address the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu criticized elements of a deal currently being negotiated (nothing has actually been finalized) and argued that America and the other nations involved in the negotiations should just walk away. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” he said. “Well this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”


Scathing Democratic reviews of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress came pouring in just minutes after the address ended: An “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” A “stick in the eye of the president.” An exercise in “circular reasoning.”


Netanyahu’s address to Congress did little to move Democrats toward his position of rejecting a nuclear deal with Iran that is nearing completion, and for many members deepened the rift between the Democratic Party and Israel’s political leadership under Netanyahu.


“This speech was straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat. The Jewish lawmaker added: “I resented the condescending tone that he used, which basically indicated that he didn’t think anybody in Congress or the country understood the threat that a nuclear, weaponised Iran poses to his country, to the region and to the world.”


Some Democrats said they felt it was premature for the Israeli prime minister to label a possible agreement a “very bad deal” and denounce it as paving the way for Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb since it was still being negotiated and provisions haven’t been made public.


Many of Democratic leaders were less restrained, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was visibly agitated during the speech. She said afterward that she was near tears, “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States” and the “condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran.”


The former US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, told CNN he feared for how the two sides might react should a crisis erupt on their watch, adding that he was disturbed to see that many strong supporters of Israel from the Democratic Party had boycotted the speech.


The effects of this are unknowable but real, he told Fairfax Media. Netanyahu may not now have the rapid open-door access to the White House that Israel’s leaders have depended on in emergencies, he says.  Nor will the US be as willing to share intelligence on the ongoing negotiations with Iran as it has been, he believes.


Obama’s chief diplomat, John Kerry, was labelled “obsessive” and “messianic” by Netanyahu’s defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, for his pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded to the speech said “simply demanding that Iran capitulate is not a plan.” Kerry rejected Netanyahu’s contention that further sanctions on Iran would prompt the latter to abandon the nuclear infrastructure that it has been building over the years.




Analysts say that Netanyahu’s speech in Congress was directed to Israeli voters at least as much as to American ears, with Netanyahu hoping to impress some disenchanted voters who have drifted away from Likud to support parties that have focused more on the daily issues concerning Israelis, like the high cost of living and the lack of affordable housing.


Shlomo Avineri, a veteran Israeli professor of political science, said he did not think that Netanyahu’s performance in Congress would have a significant effect on either the negotiations underway between the world powers and Iran or on the Israeli election campaign. But, he said, it might give Netanyahu a minor lift in the polls at the election to be held on 17th March.


Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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