A national leader’s appearance before the U.S. Congress is usually a source of pride and unity. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned trip to Washington — opposed by the White House and many Democrats — has Israel in uproar. The Israeli leader faces growing calls to cancel the visit as rivals accuse him of risking Israel’s relations with the United States in hopes of winning extra votes in next month’s Israeli parliamentary election. But Netanyahu has shown no signs of backing down, saying Sunday he would “do everything” to prevent U.S.-led international negotiators from reaching a “bad and dangerous agreement” with Iran over its nuclear program.
The U.S. is Israel’s closest and most important ally. While ties remain strong between the nations, relations between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama are another matter. The two have long had strained personal relations and differ on many policy issues, with Netanyahu favoring a more confrontational approach to his foes over Obama’s inclination toward diplomacy and compromise. The differences are especially glaring when it comes to the Iranian nuclear issue. Netanyahu has identified a nuclear-armed Iran as the single greatest threat to his country and says its nuclear program must be dismantled. Israeli pressure, featuring barely veiled threats to attack Iran if necessary, is credited by many here as having focused world attention on the issue and spurred economic sanctions against Iran.
Obama has vowed to prevent Iran from developing a bomb but has signaled he’s willing to tolerate certain activities, such as uranium enrichment, a technology that Israel fears could quickly be diverted for weapons use. The U.S. and five global partners hope to reach a preliminary deal with Iran by March. Cabinet Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, acknowledged differences between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran. “Netanyahu feels that he has been fighting for years and now we are nearing a critical moment,” Katz told Channel 2 TV. Fearful that Obama is about to reach a “bad deal,” Netanyahu jumped at the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, two weeks before Israel’s general election. The invitation was issued by the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, and engineered by Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, a former Republican operative. More