Editorial Opinion

Netanyahu Should Pass on Speech Before Congress

Every single day, Iran’s centrifuges are spinning.

Thousands of them are churning out enriched uranium needed for its commercial, research, and industrial goals. A small amount of that uranium is weapons-grade. Even as the P5+1 nations (the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany) pursue their molasses-like negotiations with the Iranian government, allowing deadline after deadline to slip away, the centrifuges keep spinning.

The P5+1 negotiations have produced an interim agreement that reduced Iran’s most dangerous enrichment output. And as they’ve moved closer to a final deal, the government of Israel has raised one red flag after another, warning the world that Iran harbors nefarious nuclear ambitions.

In September 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alighted the podium of the United Nations General Assembly with a chart and a red magic marker, and explained to the world that there was a point of “no return” after which Iran would be able to quickly “break out” and make a nuclear bomb. Once that moment arrived, there would be no other way to stop Tehran short of a multi-point military strike.

The Netanyahu government, and most of the Republican congressional leadership, is convinced that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are on the verge of concluding a bad deal that will give Iran enough latitude to continue to produce sizable quantities of 20 percent enriched uranium, thereby providing it with internationally sanctioned cover to develop nuclear weapons.

Every single day, Iran’s centrifuges are spinning.

Meanwhile, it is election season in Israel. In a month, Israeli citizens will prove yet again that theirs is the most vibrant and freewheeling democracy in the Middle East. In October, Prime Minister Netanyahu fired two of his senior ministers and dissolved the Knesset, thereby setting in motion a bitterly contested snap-election whose outcome is far from certain.

Every single day, Iran’s centrifuges are spinning, Three weeks ago, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, negotiated what must have seemed at the time like a masterstroke with House Speaker John Boehner. Netanyahu would receive an official invitation to speak before a joint session of Congress – thus receiving the greatest honor that can be bestowed on a foreign leader for the third time. The only other leader to receive three such invitations was Winston Churchill, one of Netanyahu’s heroes.

This ultimate photogenic moment was set for March 3, exactly two weeks before the Israeli elections and well before the current round of P5+1 negotiations is due to conclude. That would coincide with the annual gathering of AIPAC, the formidable pro-Israel lobby. Netanyahu could thus appear before two friendly audiences in a media blitz to sound the alarm about the White House’s weak-kneed diplomatic retreat.

But Dermer, an American-born confidant of Netanyahu, failed to inform the White House and the Democrats in Congress of the pending invitation. Boehner likewise kept the Democrats out of the loop. When the invitation was announced, there was an explosion of criticism, in Israel as well as the United States.

The White House announced it would not invite Netanyahu to meet with the President, as is customary for visiting foreign allies. Some Democratic legislators announced they would not attend the joint session. Vice President Joe Biden said he would be out of town on a still unplanned foreign visit and would therefore not be able to preside.

Now the planned masterstroke is looking like a diplomatic disaster. Democrats who had previously joined Republicans in promoting more stringent sanctions against Iran began backing away. In a matter of a few weeks, bipartisan congressional support for the position of the Israeli government suddenly seemed elusive.

American Jews, strong supporters of both Israel and the Democratic president, have watched the impending train wreck with growing alarm. Some notable American Jewish leaders have privately counseled Netanyahu to postpone or even cancel his appearance, rather than have the issue of Israel become a political debating point between Republicans and Democrats. This past week, some went public with their counsel.

Although the conflict between Netanyahu and the Democrats has also generated a great deal of criticism in Israel, it hasn’t hurt Netanyahu’s poll numbers. To the contrary, this past week showed a surge of support for his Likud party.

That was certainly part of Netanyahu’s calculation. Nothing would enhance his stature with his political base more than standing up to the loathed American president in the halls of Congress, receiving ovation after standing ovation (if only from half the room) as he kept faith with his countrymen to warn of Tehran’s deceit.

But the question must be asked: Is this speech, now befouled by partisan bickering, the best way to put forward Israel’s case? We think not. As the time draws near it has been reported that Netanyahu is considering making some adjustments to his planned visit to Washington. Let’s hope so.

Let the Israeli prime minister come to Washington, speak at what will be a heavily covered AIPAC plenary session, go on every Sunday morning talk show, and lobby every friend of Israel in the Senate and House office buildings. But let him forego the speech to Congress. Nothing good can come of it.

Meanwhile, every single day, Iran’s centrifuges continue spinning.

CAP: Prime Minister Netanyahu at a joint session of Congress in 2014.

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