Israeli officials are considering amending the format of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s planned address to the U.S. Congress, to try to calm some of the partisan furor the Iran-focused speech has provoked.
They are considering whether Netanyahu should speak to a closed-door session of Congress, rather than in a prime-time address, so as to drain some of the intensity from the event, a source said.
Another option is for the speech to be given at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington the same week, rather than in Congress.
“The issue has been under discussion for a week,” said a source close to the Prime Minister’s Office. “[Netanyahu] is discussing it with Likud people. Some say he should give up on the speech, others that he should go through with it.” The fear in Likud is that a cancellation or change of format will make Netanyahu appear weak, hurting his re-election prospects.
Netanyahu told voters from the Russian-speaking community on Monday evening that he was determined to discuss Israel’s objections in Washington to an emerging deal with Iran but he did not say if that meant a public speech in Congress.
“I am … determined to go to Washington to present Israel’s position to the members of Congress and the American people,” Netanyahu said, repeating that nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands would constitute an existential threat to Israel.
An opinion poll by Israel’s Army Radio on Monday said 47 percent of people think Netanyahu should cancel the address, while 34 percent say he should go ahead with it.
At a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the White House on Monday, President Barack Obama commented on Israeli opposition to the emerging agreement with Iran.
“There are real differences substantively, but that’s separate and apart from Mr. Netanyahu coming to Washington,” Obama said, warning that the perception of a Likud-Republican alignment puts a “cloud” of “partisan politics” over the U.S.-Israel relationship.
While most of the pressure on Netanyahu to retreat has come from Democrats in Congress caught between their president and their support for Israel, a lot of flack has come from outside Congress, from American-Jewish organizational leaders, as well.
The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman called the prime minister’s plan to address Congress “a tragedy of unintended consequences.” Foxman said that the media uproar surrounding the visit “turned the whole thing into a circus.
Seymour Reich, the former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is reported to have come out against the speech.
Meanwhile, two experts on U.S.-Israel relations warned that should the speech go on as planned, it could damage the alliance.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American Mideast policy and U.S.-Israel ties, told Ynet that “there is a schism in the Democratic party and the Jewish community is embarrassed.”
He thinks the pro-Israel lobby could be high on the collatoral damage list from the latest row. “With all the power [the lobby] had up until now, its ability to function has been damaged,” he says.
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who orchestrated the invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, met with Secretary of State John Kerry 48 hours before the news of the speech broke, but withheld the information from him.
“The White House, and thus the State Department, have marked him with a big X. An ambassador without access to the White House or the State Department cannot do his job,” says Gilboa.
Danny Halperin, Israel’s former economic attaché in Washington, said there could be ramifications in terms of support for Israel at the U.N..
Besides the fact that the president decides on the use of the veto at the Security Council, Europe is influenced by Washington.
“European countries are less friendly towards Israel,” Halperin says. “The moment the U.S. tells the Europeans that they can pressure Israel, our situation will become a lot more difficult.”