Despite the Obama administration’s campaign to dissuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday, he has remained committed to delivering the speech. Here are five reasons why Netanyahu has made the right decision.
1. Canceling the event will change nothing. The White House identifies the manner in which the speech was arranged as the cause of the conflict. Netanyahu, it claims, did not coordinate the visit with the president, and he allowed himself to be used by Republicans who are pursuing a partisan agenda.
If these were President Barack Obama’s only concerns, then he would have worked behind the scenes to reduce the tension. Instead, the White House immediately demanded, in public no less, that the Israeli prime minister make a humiliating gesture of obeisance by canceling the speech. It did so in keeping with an established policy of diminishing Netanyahu — a policy that was already set in stone months ago, when a senior official in the White House anonymously described Netanyahu to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as a “chickenshit.”
Netanyahu is up for reelection on March 17. Obama’s campaign against him is a sly way of making the case to the Israeli electorate that he is incapable of managing relations with the United States, Israel’s greatest ally. If Netanyahu were to phone Obama, apologize and cancel the appearance before Congress, Obama would simply pocket the concession and proceed with his efforts to hobble the prime minister.
2. Netanyahu’s speech is the act of a true and courageous friend. All of America’s traditional allies in the Middle East are deeply distrustful of Obama’s outreach to Iran. Allies in Europe and Asia are similarly fearful regarding what they consider to be flagging American resolve in the face of threats from Russia and China. Few allied leaders, however, will express their concerns to the president plainly — even in private — for fear of retribution. When they see the White House treating Netanyahu to a level of hostility usually reserved for adversaries, their trepidation only increases.
Even worse, Obama’s apparent reluctance to stand up to adversaries gives allies incentive to hedge. The case of France is instructive. As our colleague Benjamin Haddad recently argued, elements of the French elite are now saying that the French government would be foolish to take a hard line against Russia and Iran. If Washington is going to fold in the face of pressure from Moscow and Tehran, how can France alone hold the line?
3. It was Congress, a co-equal branch of government, that invited the prime minister. Whether Obama has the authority to sign the proposed agreement with Iran without consulting lawmakers is a question in dispute, but no one doubts that Congress has a right, indeed an obligation, to exercise oversight in the realm of foreign policy. It has a duty to keep itself and the people that it serves well-informed about consequential matters — by listening to whomever it pleases.
Obama, however, has systematically worked to keep Congress in the dark. Secretary of State John Kerry inadvertently admitted as much when he recently stated, “[A]nybody running around right now jumping in to say, ‘Well we don’t like the deal …,’ doesn’t know what the deal is.” If they do not know all the details, there is a reason why: Namely, the administration will not divulge them. The White House obviously prefers to hide the terms of the deal until after it is signed, by which time it will be too late for anyone to mount serious opposition.
The time for debate is now, and if Obama will not respect the wishes of a co-equal branch of government, at least Netanyahu will.
4. Netanyahu’s appearance will also spark a vital debate about more than just the nuclear deal, which is only one aspect of a broader policy of outreach to Iran. Evidence mounts by the day that Obama sees Iran as an attractive partner of the United States in defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and stabilizing the Middle East more broadly and that he sees the nuclear deal as the key step to realizing that partnership.
These apparent intentions are deeply troubling to the Israeli government, which is watching today as Iran leads Syria and Hezbollah in a combined offensive on the Golan Heights against the rebels who threaten to topple the Assad regime. If Iran wins, Israel and Jordan will find Iranian troops ensconced on their border. While this prospect alarms them, it also vexes the traditional allies of the United States in the Persian Gulf. They fear that a nuclear deal will strengthen the defensive umbrella that Iran already provides to the Quds force as it builds a network of Shiite militias from Baghdad to Beirut.
Netanyahu’s visit will thus raise public awareness of the connection between the nuclear issue and the destabilizing activities of Iran in the region — an issue that deserves much more attention than it has received.
5. The Israeli prime minister’s views are reasonable, if not judicious. His opinions about the proposed Iran deal are not idiosyncratic; they are not exclusively Israeli; nor are they extreme. American observers with substantial reputations and with no ax to grind have themselves begun to express similar doubts about the proposed deal. Citing Henry Kissinger and others, The Washington Post editorial board recently wrote that “a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and temporarily restrict that capability.”
If the president follows through with such a plan without first subjecting its terms to a rigorous debate in Congress, he will be concluding an agreement that is entirely personal in nature. The legitimacy of such a deal would be hotly contested, rendering it inherently unstable, if not dangerous. By helping to force a more thorough examination of the matter, Netanyahu is therefore performing a service to us all. When a president turns a deaf ear to a good friend bearing an inconvenient message, he works against his own interests, whether he realizes it or not.