By now, it has become clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to address Congress on March 4 has become a disaster – not just for him but more importantly for the US-Israel relationship.
From the beginning, one of the chief objections to the visit — and the reason so many supporters of Israel including prominent American Jewish leaders like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman and Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Union of Reform Judaism, have asked Netanyahu to postpone his appearance — was the danger that the speech would be used to advance the Netanyahu campaign. This is exactly what happened in the last Israeli election two years ago when Netanyahu’s Likud Party used his 2012 speech to Congress as the basis for acampaign ad.
The ad begins with a view of the U.S. Capitol. It shows the Prime Minister receiving standing ovations from members including Vice President Biden and ends with the Likud Party logo and the slogan: “When Netanyahu speaks, the world listens.”
The thought that the U.S. Congress could be used as a backdrop for ads in the final two weeks of an ongoing election campaign is offensive to many sincere supporters of Israel. Our Capitol should not be used as a prop in another nation’s election. One of the central elements that underpins the alliance between our two nations is our common commitment to democracy and elections. That means that both nations stay out of the other’s democratic process.
President Obama put his finger on the problem, appearing in the White House with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “As much as I love Angela (Merkel), if her election were two weeks away, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House … And she probably wouldn’t have asked for one,” the President said.
What would be the harm in postponing the speech until after the election, when Congress could welcome a new Israeli Prime Minister with a fresh mandate from his people?
At this point, it would appear that only stubbornness or the wish to avoid looking weak in the eyes of his own hardline supporters is preventing Netanyahu from postponing this ill-conceived speech. More Israelis want to see the speech postponed. A poll by Israel’s Army Radio this week said 47 percent of voters thought Netanyahu should cancel the address, while 34 percent said it should go ahead.
Netanyahu says the message he wants to deliver about the dangers of an incipient deal on Iran’s nuclear program is so important that he feels a moral duty to go ahead. But how many will be listening? After all the controversy and bitterness his plan has engendered, much of the coverage will inevitably focus on who is in the chamber and who is not – how many are boycotting the address and how many members of Congress simply find something else they have to do or somewhere else they need to be.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested that many members might find themselves busy with other matters. The latest announcement by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the longest-serving member of the Senate, saying that he will not attend, will likely provide political cover for more Democrats to stay away.
Some Netanyahu backers in the United States, headed by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), have responded with an ugly campaign, branding critics of the speech as appeasers, similar to American Jewish leaders who failed to stand up to Hitler in the 1930s.
This libelous and offensive parallel should be condemned. This is a debate triggered by a U.S. Speaker of the House and an Israeli Prime Minister who choose to flout convention and custom by engineering an ill-timed and inappropriate invitation two weeks before Israeli voters go to the polls.
If the speech were to happen a month later and Netanyahu were still Prime Minister, he would be welcomed by all.
(Alan Elsner is Vice President for Communications at J Street.)