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With Iran speech, Netanyahu squares up for long battle with Obama

The Israeli prime minister did himself and his country a grave disservice with this speech — but his confrontation with Obama over Iran has a long way to go.

To misquote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hero Winston Churchill, today’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress was not the end of his conflict with President Barack Obama. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

"Boiled down to its fundamentals, the question is: who decides U.S. policy toward Iran — Netanyahu or Obama?"'

Netanyahu left no doubt that if re-elected later this month he would fight to block the nuclear deal that the United States is negotiating with Iran along with five other powers. The Republicans who control both houses of Congress will back him all the way. The same party which has voted to repeal Obamacare 57 times will no doubt use every legislative tool at its disposal to derail the agreement -- if there is one.

That sets up a long, drawn-out confrontation that would be unprecedented in the annals of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Netanyahu has justified his appeal to Congress by citing several critical moments in the past where Israeli prime ministers defied U.S. presidents -- but in each of those cases, it was a question of the United States objecting to a specific Israeli action. In this case, Israel is seeking to force its policy toward Iran on the President of the United States who has a different policy -- and doing so by siding with the party that is not in control of the White House.

Boiled down to its fundamentals, the question is: who decides U.S. policy toward Iran - Netanyahu or Obama?

Netanyahu’s speech also cannot be divorced from the circumstances under which it was given and its effect cannot be analyzed without also measuring the damage he has done to the U.S.-Israel relationship, which has been politicized as never before.

As Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said in a statement before the speech, “The process employed by Mr. Netanyahu and his Ambassador, Mr. Dermer, to secure this privilege (to address a joint session) is deeply offensive and hurtful. It has driven a partisan wedge where none has ever existed before, it has provided a gratuitous insult to our head of state, and bypassed any reasonable norm of diplomatic protocol.”

RELATED: Netanyahu's address to Congress, the annotated edition

The bitter responses of Democrats after the speech confirmed that the damage done by the speech to the relationship has been real and significant. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was "near tears" during the address and that she was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States.”

Netanyahu may think it was worth it. He is in a tough election battle and his aides were widely quoted in the Israeli media over the weekend as saying the speech might bring his Likud Party an extra two seats in the March 17 election. That might make a big difference for Netanyahu -- but the Israeli people should not be made to pay such a heavy price for his electoral success.

The biggest problem with the address itself was the total absence of a viable strategy for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu appears to believe that the international community will agree to toughen sanctions against Iran even if the United States is perceived as walking away from a workable agreement.

In fact, the opposite is more likely to happen. International sanctions will crumble and the hardliners in Iran who have opposed the nuclear negotiations all along will regain control over policy. The rigorous international inspection and monitoring regime currently overseeing the Iranian nuclear program would end.

Netanyahu also put forward new conditions for ending sanctions against Iran, including Tehran ceasing aggression against its neighbors, stopping its sponsorship of terrorism and ceasing its threats to annihilate Israel. These demands seem reasonable at first glance but we should remember that during the Cold War, the United States succeeded in negotiating several nuclear weapons agreements with the Soviet Union without allowing them to become entangled in other issues. 

That did not mean that the United States stopped opposing the Kremlin’s horrible human rights record, its invasion of neighboring nations, its imprisonment of dissidents and its involvement in regional proxy wars against U.S. allies around the world. But these clashes were never held hostage to nuclear disarmament.

The nuclear talks with Iran should be about its nuclear program and ways to control it and render it harmless to its neighbors. There are separate U.S. and EU sanctions against Iran for its sponsorship of terrorism and its human rights record – and these should certainly remain in place as long as necessary.

Netanyahu did himself and his country a grave disservice with this speech – but it seems likely that his confrontation with Obama over Iran has a long way to go.

Alan Elsner is Vice President for Communications for J Street.