A trip to Washington this week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been described as “destructive,” “inappropriate,” and at the very least unnecessary by officials and policy experts from both parties.
But on Sunday, as he departed Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said his visit was a "crucial and even historic mission," designed to secure Israel’s future.
The Israeli leader, who is up for reelection on March 17, has portrayed his Tuesday address to Congress as essential in the face of a potential nuclear deal that the Obama administration could strike with Iran in coming months. Negotiations for a deal are aimed at preventing the Islamic Republic from building nuclear weapons.
But Netanyahu insists any deal would fail to stop Tehran from becoming a nuclear power that could threaten Israel’s existence. He has suggested that President Obama is naïve and the speech appears designed to lobby Congress against the president.
Aboard the plane to Washington, a Haaretz reporter tweeted "Senior Israeli official on Netanyahu's plane: We have a lot of information about the deal with Iran & it shows P5+1 made big concessions," adding on Twitter: "Israeli official: We feel that members of congress aren't fully aware of the details of the emerging deal with Iran & we want to warn them."
Netanyahu’s visit comes just weeks before Israelis go to the polls to decide whether to give him another term, sparking questions about the Israeli leader’s motives. His opponents have suggested the real audience for his speech are Israeli voters, and that Netanyahu is hoping his speech will demonstrate that he is more able than others to defend Israel.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who is Jewish, said on Sunday during a CNN interview that Netanyahu "doesn’t speak for me on this." Host Dana Bash asked Feinstein if Netanyahu's statement that "he speaks for all Jews" bothered her, to which Feinstein replied: "I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view ... I think the arrogance does not befit Israel." Still, the senator said she will attend the address.
The trip has been marred from the start when Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to Washington without notifying the Obama administration -- a move nearly half of American voters – 48% – disagree with, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The White House later declared Boehner’s private invitation a breach of protocol. Democratic voters were overwhelmingly in opposition to the invitation -- 66% compared to 28% of Republicans who said the invitation was fine. The same poll found that Israel isn't as popular with young Americans between the ages of 18-24, with a positive rating of just 31%.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday said he doesn't want Netanyahu's visit to turn into "some great political football." But, he said, "it was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process." Kerry added during the interview on ABC's "This Week" that he has regular communication with Netanyahu, as recent as Saturday, and that “the prime minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the United States, obviously."
Netanyahu's biggest challenger in the election, Isaac Herzog, called the trip a "major mistake" in a New York Times op-ed Saturday, implying that the address to Congress is a strategic move -- and one that won’t work, for that matter. To Israel Radio, Herzog said on Sunday "preaching to the choir in Congress won’t change a thing. And at the end of the day, it will sour the atmosphere, the relationship with the administration."
Israel has enjoyed unwavering U.S. support from Democrats and Republicans alike. But Netanyahu’s “at any cost” insistence on speaking before Congress this week has forced some prominent Democrats to turn their back on his appearance, choosing not to attend, in part because the visit was not sanctioned by the White House but also because Netanyahu appears to be increasingly aligning himself with Republicans and in opposition to the president. The Israeli leader even rebuffed a separate invite to meeting with Demcoratic members of Congress. Instead, he will meet with a bipartisan group of senators after the Tuesday speech.
The White House has not held back its strong disapproval of Netanyahu’s tactics, seen by some as attempting to undermine U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy efforts while creating a wedge among some American Jewish voters. Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice said earlier this week that the trip will be "destructive" to U.S.-Israeli relations.
The president himself has said the White House does not, as a matter of protocol, meet with leaders who are on the eve of reelection bids in order to remain neutral in the Democratic process of allies.
Experts on both sides of the aisle appear wary at best regarding the visit.
Conservative foreign policy expert Robert Kagan called the planned address essentially useless. “Even the most eloquent speech by Netanyahu will not add more than marginally to what has already been said and heard,” Kagan wrote in a Washington Post column Friday. Kagan previously called the speech “inappropriate.” Sen. Feinstein used that same language to describe the planned speech earlier this month.
The Israeli leader, who has had years of testy relationships with successive American administrations, seemed undeterred.
Netanyahu chose Jerusalem’s Western Wall -- a holy site for some Jews -- as a backdrop Saturday for bolster his claims that his trip was essential for the survival of his state.
"My responsibility is to worry not only about the State of Israel, but also the future of the Jewish people," he said according to The Jerusalem Post. At the wall, he also said "I want to take this opportunity to say that I respect US President Barack Obama," adding that "I believe in the strength of the relationship between Israel and the US and in their strength to overcome differences of opinion, those that have been and those that will yet be."