Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to change many minds, if any, when he makes his controversial speech Tuesday to a joint session of Congress to warn of the dangers of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Most members of the Senate and the House of Representatives have staked out their positions or insist they they’ll wait to see the details of any deal negotiated between Iran and the United States and its allies. And President Barack Obama, who wants Congress to hold back on any new sanctions against Iran while talks are still underway, said Monday there still may not be a deal.
In an interview with Reuters, Obama said that any deal would require a verifiable freeze of work on an Iranian nuclear program but that the odds were still against a pact.
Previewing his address to Congress, Netanyahu on Monday warned of the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“As prime minister of Israel, I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them,” Netanyahu said Monday in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington.
“I plan to speak about an Iranian regime that is threatening to destroy Israel, that’s devouring country after country in the Middle East, that’s exporting terror throughout the world and that is developing, as we speak, the capacity to make nuclear weapons, lots of them,” he said.
However, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., believes that most of the lawmakers who will attend the speech already have staked out positions on the ongoing nuclear talks that probably won’t change no matter what Netanyahu says.
“Most members by this time support a deal or don’t support it. I don’t think many members are on the fence on this,” said Hamilton, a former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “I really don’t think many minds will be changed.”
Hamilton and other international analysts believe that Netanyahu’s talk is aimed more toward voters back in Israel than lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as he faces a tough re-election bid on March 17.
“It’s a combination of both,” said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The speech has not only been about undermining the (nuclear) deal but also about bolstering his election. He’s facing a lot of criticism from at home from the left and right about national security and domestic issues.”
Rivals in a hotly contested election back in Israel have denounced the speech as damaging to U.S.-Israeli relations, and a group of former generals accused Netanayhu of harming Israel’s security.
Ordinary Israelis appear divided over the speech, which is dominating the election campaign.
“He has to speak up, because history has taught us that no one tried to prevent the Holocaust,” said Eliav Mualem, 31, a salesman at a local mall. “The issue is not relations between Obama and Netanyahu, it’s not personal. Others will eventually take their place, and the ties between Israel and the United States will remain.”
But Netanyahu’s critics have been joined by a group of retired Israeli generals, which warned that his speech was threatening Israel’s strategic ties with Washington and effectively helping Iran advance toward a nuclear bomb.
The prime minister’s policies were leading to “the destruction of the alliance with the United States,” causing a rift with Washington that “is a clear and present danger to the security of Israel,” said Amnon Reshef, one of the former generals.
Regardless of whether Netanyahu’s speech is aimed at Israeli or congressional consumption, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said he’s made up his mind not to make up his mind about the nuclear deal until he sees the final details.
“I don’t know what the final deal is – we hear all sorts of reports and rumors,” Engel said. “I’ve attended lots and lots of classified briefings where different things are said. I think what’s probably going to happen is I’m not going to love it and I’m not going to hate it. I’m going to withhold judgment until I see a final product.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, acknowledged that many lawmakers are entrenched in their views. But he said Netanyahu still could “convince some who haven’t taken this as seriously as they should.”
“I hope he will, because what he’s doing is a favor to the world, really,” Hatch said Monday. “I don’t think it’s asking too much to understand that if this isn’t handled right it can be a detriment to the world.”
Netanyahu addressed AIPAC Monday amid tense relations between his administration and the White House. White House officials complained that House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu was a breach of protocol because it comes close to Israel’s elections, giving the appearance that Washington is backing his re-election.
Obama will not meet with Netanyahu, citing policy against such meetings close to elections. Also, Vice President Joe Biden left Washington on Monday for Central America, allowing him to avoid attending in his usual seat as president of the Senate.
More than three dozen House and Senate Democrats – including Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus – plan to boycott the speech. Many call it an affront to Obama.
Netanyahu tried to defuse some of the controversy in his AIPAC speech.
“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both,” he told AIPAC attendees.
“My speech is also not intended to inject Israel into the American partisan debate,” he said. “An important reason why our alliance has grown stronger decade after decade is that it has been championed by both parties, and so it must remain.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday echoed Netanyahu’s sentiment that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong, but he added “that it’s important that any steps that anybody takes should not be construed as subjecting the relationship between the United States and Israel to partisan politics.”
Despite the furor over Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday and lawmakers threatening not to attend, Boehner insists that tickets for the joint session are the most coveted in town.
“The demand for tickets, I have never seen anything like it,” Boehner said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Everybody wants to be there.”
Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed. Douglas reported from Washington. Greenberg, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Jerusalem.