When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress on Tuesday about the dangers posed by Iran's nuclear program, he will have to overcome the deafening political static created by the circumstances of his invitation. Not only did House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) invite the prime minister without consulting with the White House — leading to charges that Netanyahu was “meddling” in the making of American foreign policy — but he has given Netanyahu an enviable international platform two weeks before Israel's election.
Clearly irked, President Obama is declining to meet Netanyahu during his visit, and Obama's national security advisor Susan Rice has gone so far as to say that the injection of partisanship into the U.S.-Israeli relationship was “destructive.” Meanwhile, some Democratic members of Congress plan to boycott the speech.
We understand their irritation, but Netanyahu deserves a respectful hearing even if the auspices of his appearance are exasperating. Like other nations in the region, Israel has understandable concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran. It is not only worried about a doomsday scenario in which Iran — whose anti-Zionist rhetoric is legendary — launches an attack on Tel Aviv; it also worries that an Iranian nuclear weapon would encourage countries such as Saudi Arabia to follow suit. (Unsurprisingly, Israel prefers the status quo, in which it has a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region.)
But hearing out Netanyahu doesn't mean taking everything he says at face value or abdicating to Israel this country's decision about whether it's possible to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran without making a fateful decision to use military force.
Netanyahu suggested this week that the so-called P5+1 countries — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — had “given up” on their commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But Israel and the P5+1 interpret that objective differently. Israel believes Iran must be prevented from enriching uranium at all; the P5+1 seem willing to allow Iran to engage in limited enrichment for peaceful purposes. Another difference involves whether and when an agreement would “sunset.” Israeli officials are reportedly alarmed by reports that an agreement might expire after only 10 years.
By the end of March, negotiators hope to agree on a political framework for an agreement. Netanyahu's speech could embolden congressional efforts to undermine the deal by passing new sanctions legislation.
If and when an agreement is reached, Congress should scrutinize it in all of its complexity. It may be right to be worried — or it may discover that the deal makes sense even if it falls short of what Israel would prefer.