Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s contentious speech before Congress did not move the debate about a possible nuclear deal with Iran forward. Instead it made Israel – at least for the occasion - a partisan issue.
The ostensible goal of Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before a joint session of Congress was to warn US lawmakers about the risks of a potentially "bad deal" the Obama administration and the five other international powers might agree on with Iran over the latter's nuclear program.
That was a laudable goal that had only one problem. If there is one constituency outside of Israel that is finely attuned to making sure that President Obama does not enter into a fraught agreement over Iran's nuclear program, then it is the new Republican-controlled Congress in Washington. That was evident right from the start by the raucous applause for the Israeli prime minister when he entered the House of Representatives.
But support for Israel, its interests and its tenuous security situation have traditionally been very strong in both major US parties – long before Netanyahu became prime minister. When it comes to Israel there still exists – rare in today's Washington – a broad political consensus that cuts across party lines.
So even before Netanyahu and Republican leader John Boehner hatched their partisan plan to sideswipe Barack Obama by having the prime minister speak before Congress without consulting the president, many Republican and Democratic lawmakers had made clear that they would object to a deal with Iran that would not address Israel's legitimate security concerns. Netanyahu, who is deeply familiar with US politics, surely knows this.
For instance, for years Republican Senator John McCain has blasted the Obama administration on Iran. In January, he called them delusional on a possible deal with Tehran. Others have not minced words either. Just yesterday Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said, "I don't trust these Iranians."
Obama may be rightfully criticized for much, but he is a political realist, and as such he is clearly cognoscent of the fact that any potential deal that does not adequately address Israel's concerns is a political no-go in the US.
Slap in the face
That's why Netanyahu's speech about the danger of a bad deal and his warnings of the Iranian regime was preaching to the converted. But it was more than that. Notwithstanding some obligatory praise for what President Obama had done for Israel, it was a political slap in the face: not just for Barack Obama on his home turf, but also for America's lawmakers.
For Obama to have the foreign head of state, whom he has met more often than any other leader, appear in front of Congress to try to derail the president's own efforts to reach what could be a momentous deal over Iran's nuclear program is brazen and unprecedented. To do it 13 days before a close re-election contest in Israel is the biggest possible affront and runs counter to political etiquette.
But the Netanyahu speech is also a sign of mistrust towards US lawmakers. The Israeli prime minister apparently thinks it is necessary to remind Congress to prevent the president from entering into a deal that could jeopardize Israel. How he comes to that assessment when that same Congress has provided more than $120 billion in aid to Israel since 1949 is hard to understand.
For all those reasons Netanyahu's speech was counterproductive. As expected, it did not produce any arguments about Iran's nuclear program that have not been heard from him and others before.
Notwithstanding that a final deal or its details are by no means assured, Netanyahu repeatedly declared that the US could get a better deal with Iran. Unfortunately, he missed a golden opportunity to lay out new ideas, or sketch a path forward as to how such a "better" deal could be reached in practice. This would have really moved the debate forward. Instead, Netanyahu simply restated his well-known objection to a bad deal, called on Congress to be tough on Tehran and said the envisaged deal would pave Iran's way to the bomb.
In the end then, Netanyahu's remarks undermined what he himself had proclaimed at the very outset of the speech, namely that Israel should remain above politics. That President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and 57 Democrat-leaning lawmakers chose not to attend Netanyahu's speech is a sign that at least for now Israel has become a partisan issue. And that can definitely not be in Israel's interest.