JERUSALEM — Whether the Israeli prime minister and congressional Republicans meant it to
or not, Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech before a joint meeting of Congress on March 3, just two weeks before Israel votes, has seized center stage as the dominant issue in the election campaign.
Netanyahu this week brushed aside calls to cancel the trip to Washington, which has angered the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.
In his address to Congress, Netanyahu plans to argue against any accord with Iran that allows the country to retain centrifuges to enrich uranium and hover anywhere near a threshold for building a nuclear weapon.
After months of wrangling over the Iran deal, Netanyahu appears on a collision course with the White House.
“I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the President,” Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday night, “but to speak up for the very survival of my country.”
Netanyahu’s critics, and the majority of Israelis, according to opinion polls, say that the prime minister is also seeking his own political survival on March 17.
Netanyahu and his Likud party are in a tight race against the Labor Party, led by Isaac Herzog and his running mate, the former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni. The polls show many undecideds, and many Israelis — even those who agree with Likud policies — are tired of Netanyahu.
However, handicappers say that in such a close contest, if national security is the main issue, Netanyahu is likely to return for a historic fourth term.
Netanyahu offered a lengthy explainer Tuesday, saying that disagreements between Israeli and American leaders go back to Israel’s founding. It’s nothing personal, he said. “But we do have today a profound disagreement with the United States administration and [the world powers] over the offer that has been made to Iran.”
Yet many Israelis are concerned that Netanyahu is taking a big risk with his congressional gambit — and not because they disagree with him about Iran. They think he’s hurting Israel by undermining relations with its closest ally, the United States, which provides Israel with near-unwavering support, and more than $3 billion in aid, including advanced weaponry.
The leaders of most of Israel’s political parties have pummeled the prime minister for endangering Israel’s relations not only with the Obama White House — which is furious over House Speaker John A. Boehner’s inviting Netanyahu without consulting it, as well as the prime minister’s decision to accept — but potentially undermining Israel’s bipartisan support in Congress.
Ordinary Israelis tell pollsters they understand Netanyahu’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But at the same time, most Israelis think Netanyahu is playing politics.
Mainstream Israeli sentiment was captured a few days ago in a front-page column in Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, headlined, “You’re Right, But Don’t Go.”
“Don’t go, Netanyahu. Don’t go,” wrote Ben-Dror Yemini. “Precisely because the Iranian threat is so important, precisely because you’re right, precisely because the things you would tell Congress are important — don’t go. Because doing this would hurt the very issue that is the reason for your trip.”
Over the weekend, Herzog, Netanyahu’s Labor Party challenger, met with Vice President Biden at the Munich Security Conference. Two days earlier, Biden’s office announced that the vice president would have to miss Netanyahu’s speech because of a scheduling conflict.
Herzog called on Netanyahu to cancel his speech. “When I am prime minister, you won’t see us involved” between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, Herzog told The Washington Post. “Let the American people decide. It is embarrassing, this debate.”
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington and now a candidate for parliament with a new center-right party, said tension over Netanyahu’s speech “is not good for us.”
“Our relationship with the U.S., which is so critical for our security, was somehow dragged into Israeli politics,” Oren told Israel Army Radio this week.
A survey conducted in January and released a few days ago by the respected polling team of Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann at Tel Aviv University found that a large majority of Jewish Israelis — 67 percent — think Netanyahu “is using a speech abroad to influence the election results at home.” (Likud voters generally disagree.)
Respondents were evenly split — 46 percent to 46 percent — on whether Netanyahu’s visit to Washington would damage or benefit Israel’s interests.
The trip is a topic of fierce debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination
in the United States, called the trip a “bad idea.” Abraham Foxman, the national director of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, told the Jewish Daily Forward that the speech had turned into “a tragedy of unintended consequences.”
On Sunday, Netanyahu said that he was not just the prime minister of Israel but also “a representative of the entire Jewish people,” and that just as he marched in Paris after the terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo satirical newsweekly and a kosher supermarket, he would go to Congress to warn Americans about “those who want to kill us.”
If his trip to Washington highlights Netanyahu’s bona fides on national security, that could win him votes. But if he goes too far? Israeli voters might respond quite differently.
“It helps Netanyahu’s campaign tremendously that the focus is now on Iran and foreign relations because of the ongoing question over whether he will go to Washington or not,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.
“It has distracted the public away from issues that would be more damaging to him such as the economy,” Hoffman said. “Because Obama is perceived as hostile by Israelis — rightly or wrongly — any confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu helps Netanyahu.”
Natan B. Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who is blogging on the Israeli elections, suspects that “shifting the debate toward Iran — or toward recent tensions on Israel’s northern border — is a clear win for Netanyahu. A dramatic speech in Washington definitely won’t hurt in this regard.”
But Sachs warned that the bump at the polls could be marginal and ultimately far less important than Israel’s relations with the White House and Democrats.
“If Iran, as a topic, is politically advantageous for Netanyahu, the rift with the United States is not,” Sachs wrote. “As a rule, Israelis do not like their prime ministers to quarrel with the United States.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.