Netanyahu's anti-Iran 'mission' to U.S. worries Israelis

There is genuine worry among many Israelis that Benjamin Netanyahu’s constant beating of the drum about Iran has done serious damage to the relationship with the U.S., Derek Stoffel writes.

Israeli PM highly critical of Obama's effort to reach nuclear deal with Iran

In this Feb. 8, 2015, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)

When Benjamin Netanyahu stands at the podium in front of a joint session of the United States Congress on Tuesday, he’ll enter the history books.

Not, as his critics charge, for causing a further rift in Israeli-American relations, but by becoming only the second world leader to address U.S. lawmakers for a third time while in office.

The only other statesman to do so is Winston Churchill.

The Israeli prime minister clearly admires his British counterpart, who led the United Kingdom through the Second World War and warned against Nazism when the rest of the world wouldn’t listen.

Netanyahu has had a decades-long focus on — some would say obsession with — Iran, which the Israeli leader considers an existential threat to his nation.

The prime minister will stand before U.S. Congress on Tuesday morning and warn against what he’s already called a “bad deal” being brokered by the U.S. and the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany.

The negotiations are aimed at stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb. The government in Tehran has long maintained its nuclear intentions are for peaceful purposes only.

Many observers say that the enmity between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu marks a low point for U.S-Israeli relations. (Associated Press file photo)

Hardly anyone here in Israel believes that. There is a widespread feeling, from politicians to academics down to the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and beyond, that Iran is up to no good and it must be stopped.

But at what cost?

'I don't know if they'll support us'

There is genuine worry among many Israelis that Netanyahu’s constant beating of the drum — and an opposition to American efforts to reach a deal with Iran — has done serious damage to the relationship with the U.S., Israel’s most important ally.

“When we need the United States veto at the United Nations on something serious, I don’t know if they’ll support us,” said Shaul Geva, a resident of the Israeli seaside village of Netanya. “To go and to fight [with] your allies about this is not the way to do it.”

Netanyahu’s speech has caused an uproar in the U.S. because he was invited not by the White House but by the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner.

The Obama administration feels snubbed, no doubt. President Obama will not meet with Netanyahu while he’s in Washington. Many Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, will be no-shows as well.

But the timing is also contentious. Netanyahu will speak exactly two weeks before Israelis go to the polls to vote in national elections. (Obama says he doesn’t want to interfere in the polls, hence his refusal to meet with Netanyahu.)

For many Israelis, the speech before Congress has eclipsed the other main issue in the campaign, which is concern over the rising cost of living.

“Iran is just an excuse not to take care of the economic [situation] in Israel and not to take care of what’s happened here,” said Bar Elgars, a resident of Tel Aviv.

Strained relationship

The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama has never been particularly strong. They’ve tussled over Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, and Obama’s team wasn’t happy with Netanyahu’s perceived support of Republicans in the run-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

In a 2012 speech to the UN General Assembly, gave a visual illustration of his concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

The leaders may not get on well, but the U.S. remains Israel’s largest trading partner. The Americans provide Israel with $3.1 billion US in military assistance annually and there continues to be strong cooperation between the countries' military and security services.

The damage Netanyahu’s speech will do to Israeli-American relations will "be minimal,” said Arye Mekel, a long-time Israeli diplomat who’s now with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.

“The drama that we see is especially [strong] in Israel, because of the election. It’ll blow away in two, three weeks. Why? Because Israel and America have too many interests going on,” said Mekel.

Netanyahu hasn't backed down in the face of criticisms of the speech, whether they be broadsides launched by his political opponents or the never-ending attacks by leading columnists in the Israeli newspapers.

“It's my sacred duty as prime minister of Israel to make Israel's case,” Netanyahu said a few weeks ago.

He called his speech to Congress “a fateful, even historic, mission," just before he boarded his plane to Washington on Sunday.

Many Israelis feel the same way.

“Iran wants to destroy us,” said Herzl Pinchacsi, who lives in Jerusalem. “Of course this is connected to the Holocaust. We were nearly destroyed. And now Iran wants to do the same thing.”

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.