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The case against Netanyahu’s speech to Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver an address to a joint meeting of Congress on the threat of Iran. In a series of tweets ahead of departing for the United States, he framed the speech as the product of "a fateful, even historic mission" and styled himself as "the emissary of all Israelis."

But Netanyahu's plan to grandstand in Washington has been deemed by the Obama administration as a violation of protocol and has polarized opinion both in the United States and Israel. Many congressional Democrats will not be in attendance. It's a sign of the partisan implications of the speech, which many claim is aimed at derailing the Obama administration's ongoing negotiations with Iran.

WorldViews outlined last week what's in dispute between Netanyahu and the White House. The speech comes two weeks ahead of elections in Israel that could spell defeat for Netanyahu and his rightist Likud party.

Despite many calls to stand down, Netanyahu was undeterred. At a speech before the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Monday, Netanyahu described his imminent address to Congress as an answer to 2,000 years of Jewish statelessness and voicelessness -- a startling measure of his rhetorical chutzpah.

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he did not intend upcoming address to Congress to be divisive or disrespectful to President Obama. (Video: AP)

Critics, though, will not be impressed. Here are some of the major arguments against Netanyahu's speech, as laid out by prominent commentators in both Israel and the United States.

"The only thing more dangerous for Israel than Iranian nukes is undermined relations with America," writes Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council.

The Israeli prime minister is displeased with the current U.S.-led negotiations with Iran and fears that any nuclear deal with Tehran will still enable the Islamic Republic to retain the ability to build a nuclear weapon. As WorldViews explained earlier, both the United States and Israel are on the same page about stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb; the two governments currently disagree on how to achieve that goal.

Netanyahu told the crowd at AIPAC that his appearance in Washington was not a challenge to bipartisan support of his country, but it's hard to interpret it any other way. "The planned speech," writes Freilich, is "essentially an attempt to mobilize Congress against the administration" and is "a highly irresponsible act doomed to failure."

After all, it tipped Democratic support in Congress decidedly in Obama's favor and has rankled a host of pro-Israeli American diplomats, politicians and journalists. Maintaining bipartisan American support for Israel has been a cornerstone of Israeli policy for decades, which makes the current climate such a concern for some Israelis.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, known for his hawkishness on Iran, asks why Netanyahu thought it appropriate to so publicly challenge the Obama administration. The subtext is Netanyahu's opportunistic politicking:

There is no reason ... to believe that [Netanyahu's] putative goal, to stiffen the spine of Congress in advance of a framework agreement, could not have been achieved a) immediately after the election; b) in intensive one-on-one, or one-on-two, or five, lobbying meetings with senators; or c) in a way that didn’t so obviously disrespect the president of the United States, or place Democratic supporters of Israel in an atrocious bind.

"The person who has caused the greatest strategic damage to Israel on the Iranian issue is the prime minister," argues Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel's top intelligence agency. Dagan has become one of Netanyahu's more outspoken critics from within Israel's security establishment. The ex-spy chief is no dove, but in comments Friday, he insisted that Netanyahu was alienating his country's most important ally at exactly the wrong time.

Dagan's argument was echoed over the weekend by a group of almost 200 retired Israeli generals and security officials, known as the Commanders for Israel's Security.

"The American people see the rift between Israel and the U.S. administration. The Israeli public sees it, and, more importantly, the mullahs in Iran see it," said Amiram Levin, a former deputy chief of Mossad, at a news conference. "Iran wants Netanyahu’s speech. They understand that it will weaken Israel’s bipartisan bond with the United States."

Netanyahu's Likud party dismissed the statements of these commanders, deeming it a political attack from left-leaning opponents ahead of national elections. But Netanyahu's planned speech itself can be read as a cynical political gambit.

In Israel, domestic frustration over housing prices and rising costs of living largely outweigh questions of security — which is at the heart of Netanyahu's platform. "Israelis appear to be tiring of Iran talk," writes Lisa Goldman, director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative. "While security has traditionally been their No. 1 concern, this time, according to the polls, it is the economy."

Netanyahu's desire to "wax Churchillian," as Goldman puts it, led him down the path to addressing Congress. To hammer home the symbolism of the moment, he will be presented by Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) with a bust of Winston Churchill.

But there's only a tenuous comparison between what the former British prime minister faced in World War II and the ostensible challenge of curbing Iran's current nuclear ambitions. Many within Israel's security establishment do not share Netanyahu's apocalyptic vision of the "existential threat" posed by a nuclear Iran, and want the process of U.S.-led negotiations to bear fruit.

An editorial in Haaretz, a leading Israeli daily, offers an "alternative" Netanyahu speech in which the Israeli leader would admit that current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani "is a level-headed statesman with whom it’s possible to do business."

Lastly, there's the question of war. A collapse in talks between Iran and its Western interlocutors would possibly lead to Iran accelerating its nuclear agenda and raises the likelihood of some form of military escalation by the United States to counter the development of an Iranian bomb. Given the complicated mess of the Middle East's current conflicts, that's hardly a welcome prospect for any U.S. administration.

But, some critics say, Netanyahu appears to be willfully taking Washington down that path. In his speech to Congress, he may lay out specifics over Iran's amassed stores of enriched uranium and its number of centrifuges, but it's the very act of diplomacy with Iran that upsets the Israeli prime minister, writes Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an organization that wants to improve ties between the United States and Iran.

"Nobody in the Obama administration believes that Netanyahu is trying to advance the chances of a nuclear deal," writes Parsi. "Fewer and fewer people in the U.S. media believe that Netanyahu is doing anything but trying to push the United States and Iran towards war."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted Speaker John A. Boehner’s invitation to address Congress. He accepted the invitation after the administration had been informed of the invitation, not before. The story has been corrected.

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