Bibi's dilemma: Netanyahu can't avoid critics as speech to Congress looms

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a dilemma on his hands: Address Congress and infuriate President Obama or back down and alienate voters back home. And it may already be too late to avoid both results.

The situation has become much more delicate since Netanyahu accepted House Speaker John Boehner's invitation to address U.S. lawmakers March 3 on the perils of a nuclear deal between the Obama administration and Iran. Netanyahu, who is up for election on March 17, believes a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to Israel's existence. And while many in Israel agree, others believe provoking the leader of Israel's No. 1 patron could backfire.

“As far as I see it, Netanyahu is determined to go and has put himself in a position that to give up now would be seen as great weakness from the point of view of the Israeli public.”

— Ronen Bergman, Yediot Aharonot

“As far as I see it, Netanyahu is determined to go and has put himself in a position that to give up now would be seen as great weakness from the point of view of the Israeli public,” Ronen Bergman, senior political and military analyst for Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and author of "The Secret War with Iran," told “One of the main reasons he got himself into this situation in the first place is to portray himself as two things; first, as the one who is at the forefront of fighting the Iranian nuclear project, and second, as not being afraid of confrontation with the U.S. administration and the president when it comes to Iran.”

Obama is reportedly furious that Netanyahu plans to come to Congress and has said he will not meet with the Israeli leader. Although Obama's spokesman cited longstanding U.S. policy of not inviting foreign leaders to the White House when doing so could be perceived as an endorsement of their candidacy, Obama’s critics suggest his objection to the speech is out of fear Netanyahu will expose flaws in the international community’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, in which the U.S. is a major player.

“I just returned from the Munich Security Conference where I met with some very senior U.S. officials," Bergman said. "The way they describe it they are ballistic about Netanyahu. This mindset is common wall-to-wall in all corridors of the [U.S.] administration; the Armed Service Committee, the intelligence community, the State Department, the Defense Department. I heard only one thing, and that is that this shouldn’t happen.”

Complicating matters is the fact that it’s no secret that there is little love lost between Obama and Netanyahu. On Sunday, Boehner acknowledged on Fox News Channel that he had not informed the White House of his invitation to the Israeli leader.

“I wanted to make sure that there was no [White House] interference,” Boehner said. “I frankly didn’t want that getting in the way, quashing what I thought was a real opportunity.”

Later on Sunday, Israel’s Channel 2 News reported that the U.S. has stopped updating Israel on developments in the ongoing talks with Iran over its nuclear program out of dissatisfaction with Netanyahu's travel plans. But at this point, it may be too late to cool things down, even if Netanyahu were willing to forgo the speech.

“Obama is preparing a bad agreement that would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear country,” Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, told “His strategy is that he will leave Iran with the capability of having nuclear material, but will impose an inspection regime that will make it irrelevant. Obama also wants to elevate Iran to the position of regional policeman in the Middle East, responsible for regional stability. This policy is so far-fetched that any student of Middle East studies would understand it is like hallucinating!”

Gilboa said Netanyahu didn’t anticipate the strong reactions from the U.S. and from the many members of Congress, who will be absent from a speech that could be made before a half-empty House. He believes Netanyahu should consider other options, such as taking the politics out of the visit by inviting the leader of the Israeli opposition, Isaac Herzog, to go with him to Washington.

“Alternatively, he could postpone his speech until one day after the Israeli elections [March 18] and test the White House, who said their main objection to the speech was because of its possible influence on the Israeli election,” Gilboa suggests. “Another alternative is to deliver the speech at the AIPAC conference at the start of March – which would be widely reported – and then meet privately with groups of congressmen to discuss the Iranian situation.”

Among those supporting Netanyahu’s planned speech is Holocaust survivor and Noble Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel. In full-page advertisements in this weekend’s Washington Post and New York Times, Wiesel asks, “Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?” Also supporting Netanyahu’s stance is Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, currently on a visit to Israel. Speaking in Jerusalem on Sunday the former Arkansas governor told journalists, “Americans need to know what [the] dangers are with Iran and that the Iranian threat is not unique to Israel, that it does, in fact, involve the United States and the rest of the world.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: