Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to US Congress on March 3, 2015, with US Speaker of the House John Boehner and President pro tempore of the US Senate Orrin Hatch applauding behind him.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On April 10, 2002, then former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington DC to give a speech to US senators at the request of prime minister Ariel Sharon. The reason was to explain the imperative Israeli need to go back into areas Israel had already forfeited following the Oslo Accords – due to the numerous terrorist attacks which culminated with the March 27th Park Hotel Passover Seder massacre of 29 Jews. The Bush administration publicly and forcefully opposed Israel’s reentering these areas, which caused significant friction in the relationship between the two allied nations.
Because the discussions between Israel and the US administration were unsuccessful, Sharon decided to bypass the administration and have Netanyahu speak to US senators.
The 2002 Netanyahu speech was arranged by Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, made bipartisan when then Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman agreed to co-host the event. Even though many senators did not attend the speech, it was broadcast live on CNN. Despite a difference in diplomatic strategies, the speech was not met with any derision by the Bush administration and caused virtually no controversy.
It should be noted that almost immediately after the address, the views of numerous US senators, and subsequently the Bush administration, significantly changed, and their criticism of Israel’s actions to respond forcibly to end the terrorism was thereafter minimized. Historically, there is near consensus today that the actions by Israel at that time were in fact necessary, and they did lead to a significant reduction in terrorism.
Thus Prime Minister Netanyahu understood from his previous experience that, despite the current US administration’s position, it was possible through such a speech not only to rally Congress but also improve the position of the administration. As one in attendance who heard from numerous senators and congressmen afterward, Netanyahu’s March 3 speech before the US Congress was a success. It’s impact will be seen over the next couple of weeks.
The prime minister’s argument that Iran having the knowledge to make a nuclear bomb is not that significant if the relevant infrastructure is taken away, comparing it to knowing how to fly but not having an airplane, will resonate with Americans. It is believed that Iran decided not to get closer than three months from a bomb after the prime minister drew his famous red line at the UN. The prime minister’s main argument is that Iran will not cross the threshold right now, so wait as their economy weakens to get a better deal.
Further, how can you reduce sanctions on a regime spreading terrorism and expanding its influence around the world? A country whose constitution calls for jihad is not one that will ever be anything but an enemy.
These arguments needed to be delivered to Congress and will further help push the administration to get a better deal. The invitation for this speech came from the leaders of the Senate and the House, both Republicans.
Confusion arose as the result of the fact that the invitation claimed to be bipartisan; only after it was scheduled did it become apparent that even though the president had indeed been notified, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate had not been.
With the urgency of the message that needed to be delivered, the prime minister was now in a difficult situation. Turning down an invitation at this eleventh hour could end the best chance Israel has to stop a “bad agreement” with Iran. There were other relevant and interrelated matters: the necessary economic sanctions on Iran at a time when Iran encroaches on Israel’s Syrian border while expanding terrorism worldwide. Less significant was the harm it might cause to the relationship the prime minister has built with very supportive and powerful leaders of the US Senate and House. Conversely, accepting it could inevitably lead to hurting bipartisan support for Israel and further hurting his relationship with the Obama administration.
The bottom line is that opposing an Iranian nuclear program is a bipartisan concern, as powerfully expressed by Democratic Senator Bob Menendez at the AIPAC Conference and the huge bipartisan ovations the prime minister received during his speech to Congress. The invitation was accurate in that there was bipartisan support for the prime minister’s views on Iran and to hear from the prime minister.
A question was raised: why the March date of the speech? Originally, the invitation was discussed by the House Speaker before the Israeli elections were decided upon, and the invitation went out to schedule the speech the first week of February. An important aside: Prime Minister Netanyahu has always preferred to speak at the AIPAC Conference in Washington every year, scheduled a year in advance – this year the first week of March. The prime minister asked that the Congressional speech date be changed to correspond with his visit to AIPAC. Since the Iran agreement deadline is currently called for the end of March, it was also thought that it would be much easier to change or stop an agreement before it is signed rather than after. Untimely, but logical.
Questions have also been raised about the political nature of the prime minister speaking to Congress two weeks before the Israeli elections. The fact of the matter is that the date of the speech would have been around the same irrespective of the elections, simply because of the urgent need to rally Israel’s supporters in the US. Furthermore, there was a discussion regarding whether the prime minister was even going to come to address AIPAC two weeks before elections.
When Israel had elections on March 28, 2006, all three major candidates, Ehud Olmert, Likud leader Netanyahu, and Labor head Amir Peretz, spoke by teleconference and did not attend the AIPAC Conference, held the first week of March. But the serious threat from Iran – existential if it remains unchecked, compelled the prime minister to come in person to address the 16,000-strong AIPAC Conference, and speak to speak to a Congress whose support is indispensable.
Yes, it is very possible that the speech will help the prime minister at home. Interestingly, it seems strange that no one mentions the fact that the opposition by the Labor Party to the speech was at least likely partially because it believes the speech will help Likud and thereby hurt Labor at the polls.
In the recent Conference of Presidents trip to Israel, there was a strong consensus of Israeli experts on the great danger the potential deal with Iran could pose to Israel. Therefore, our leadership’s view was confirmed: to publicly support the prime minister’s coming to Washington to speak to Congress. We urged our members to contact those in Congress, urging them to attend, and I personally attended as well.
America is a nation founded upon principles of freedom of speech because only with freedom of speech can the right decisions be made. Whereas procedure is important, having all the facts and making the right decision is more important. The American Jewish community shares Israel’s concern about Iran, and as such, we at the National Council of Young Israel supported the prime minister’s decision to speak to Congress about this existential threat to Israel.The author is president of the National Council of Young Israel and of the intellectual property law firm of Weiss & Moy.