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Heightened tensions between the US and Israel

Israeli Prime Minister to address joint session of Congress on Tuesday

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington, D.C., and is scheduled to address a Joint Meeting of Congress on Tuesday. It will be his third time making such a speech. It comes amid growing diplomatic tension between the United States and Israel. Invited by Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the move was intended to rebuke the White House for its nuclear talks with Iran.

This past week, Secretary of State John Kerry criticized what he called Netanyahu’s “judgment” on Iran’s nuclear talks. He said there’s nothing to be lost by trying for a deal with Iran, arguing that, "Israel is safer today with the added time we have given, and the stoppage of the advances in the Iranian nuclear program than they were before we got that agreement, which, by the way, the prime minister opposed. He was wrong, and today he's saying we should extend that interim agreement.”

Top officials, including Vice President Joe Biden won’t be attending the speech. President Barack Obama has decided not to invite Netanyahu to the White House during this trip, saying it would be inappropriate two weeks before the Israeli election, which is scheduled for March 17.

Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice said during a television interview that Netanyahu’s speech will be “destructive” to U.S.-Israeli relations. At least 30 congressional Democrats are also planning not to attend the address. In return, Netanyahu has turned down an offer from senior Democrats to address them privately during his visit. That’s led to bigger questions about whether support for Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the United States.

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Thomas Drayton spoke to Dov Waxman, a professor of Jewish studies and a co-director of the Middle East Center at Northeastern University, who joined the discussion from Boston, and Ari Ratner, a former State Department official who is now a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, who joined from Washington.  

“I think this has been a process that has been going on for some time,” said Waxman. “The Republican Party in particular has really sought to turn support for Israel into a wedge issue within U.S. domestic politics, in the hope of attracting some American Jewish support and donors as well as appealing to their own Christian evangelical base.”

He said it’s a process that’s been happening already, but that it’s now reached a new height with this speech. Ratner agrees. “I think it’s certainly true that Israel, like much of American politics has become more partisan,” he said. “It’s not only an issue between left and right, but it’s also a generational issue.”

Netanyahu’s speech will come a day after he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He’s hoping his visit will reach out to multiple groups of people.

“He’s speaking to two audiences,” said Waxman. “He’s certainly speaking to his own domestic audience, just simply by his willingness to go, to defy the president. And by anticipating standing ovations from Congress, he’ll be displaying both his determination to defend Israel’s interests and show that Congress is behind him, that his problem is not with the United States but rather with President Obama himself.”

Also discussed during the segment were recent revelations by Al Jazeera and The Guardian newspaper that top secret Israeli documents revealed a split between what Netanyahu said about Iran at the United Nations in 2012 and what Israel intelligence found at the time.

Waxman said it proves that “there’s not only a difference of interpretation between Netanyahu and people in the Israeli security establishment but that there’s a difference of facts, and it’s something the prime minister should be asked about. More broadly, what this indicates is that has often been somewhat loose with the facts in terms of the immediacy of the danger [of Iran’s nuclear program]. It’s one of the problems that he faces now, coming across as the boy who cried wolf.”

Waxman said that Netanyahu has some legitimate concerns in the deal that’s rumored to be emerging but that his problem has been in not offering an alternative.

Ratner said that Netanyahu has had little impact on the negotiations themselves. “Part of Israel’s role is to play bad cop, and Netanyahu has done that effectively,” he said. “But from a long-term perspective, he’s certainly exacerbated the partisan divide both in Washington and generationally and is seen as a very controversial figure now.”

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