Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: Marc Sellem/Newscom)
What do you get when a foreign prime minister slights the president of the United States by accepting a secret invitation from the speaker of the House to address Congress in an attempt to thwart U.S. policy two weeks prior to an election?
Well, you get a plot worthy of “House of Cards.” But those of us who’ve already binged-watched the popular Netflix series know that Season 3 is about Russia, not Israel.
No, this is the real life showdown that will take place on the House floor before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. It’s the head-to-head of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barak Obama, of Republicans and Democrats, of Israel and Iran, and of the free world and those trying to destroy it.
Few speeches have created such controversy, and few orators could meet the challenge. This is Netanyahu’s moment—a world stage with much at stake. The question is whether his speech will strengthen the U.S.-Israeli partnership or further erode a decades-old friendship.
Here are the audiences he needs to convince and the stumbling blocks to avoid.
The American People
The prime minister has been transparent about the point of Tuesday’s speech. Last week he announced to an Israeli interviewer that his goal is “to try to stop the deal from happening.” The “deal” is President Obama threatening to veto any piece of legislation that further limits Iran.
It’s no secret that Obama and Netanyahu aren’t BFFs. “It’s complicated” is a generous summation of their relationship. To make things more interesting, we’ve never witnessed a foreign dignitary bypassing the office of the president by accepting an invitation from the speaker of the House.
So why is this a problem? If you want the support of the American people, you have to be careful not to snub their president. The prime minister can attack policy, but he cannot disrespect the office of the president no matter how he feels about the person occupying it. It’s a delicate balance.
Between threats of a partial government shutdown and a Republican Party that can’t seem to agree, the 114th Congress has been, well, messy. The secret invitation to Netanyahu from John Boehner further complicates an already rocky start.
Not only will Netanyahu be using the same podium that the president uses for the State of the Union, but he’ll also be asking Congress, including Democrats, to defy their leader. This especially puts Jewish Democrats in a hard position. They’ve asked for a closed-door session with Netanyahu in advance, but no dice. Some Democrats have vowed to boycott, while Republicans welcome the speech. Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said, “Did anyone tell them not to come? If they choose to sit it out, that’s their problem.”
The prime minister will gain extra points if he can unite the parties. He needs Congress, and instead of making this about the R’s versus the D’s, he should make it about unifying both parties against terrorism.
Timing is everything, and some are suspect of Netanyahu’s timing—Israeli elections are two weeks away. So what’s his motive? House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., went on record to say, “I don’t think that’s appropriate, for any country, that the head of state would come here within two weeks of his own election.”
Even the pro-Israel lobbying group J Street has expressed concern. Their executive director said, “What the prime minister is doing here is simply so egregious that it has more lasting impact on that fundamental underlying relationship.”
But Netanhayu seems undeterred. On Sunday he said, “I will be the messenger of all the people of Israel, including those who agree with me and those who don’t agree with me.”
But if he doesn’t win reelection, this speech will be perceived as an utter failure and the hoped for lasting impact will not remain. He not only needs to convince Congress and Americans to back Israel but also show Israelis why he is still the man for the job. Essentially, it’s an “Iran is really bad” and a “Get Out the Vote” speech all in one. That’s quite a challenge.
So is this prime minister up for the job? No doubt he is a gifted public speaker. The great Winston Churchill is the only other foreign leader that has been invited to speak to Congress three times.
But the stakes are higher than ever before, and this will take more of a Frank Underwood Jedi mind trick. This will take delivering a message that can resonate with the president, Congress, Americans, Israelis and the rest of the free world. And while I’m not a betting woman, I’d put my benjamins on Benjamin any day.
Psalms 122:6 – Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
Genesis 12:3 – And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.