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The complex American and Israeli politics of Netanyahu’s address to Congress

March is shaping up as the moment of truth for the Obama administration’s Iran policy. On March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will appear before a joint meeting of Congress to rally support against what may be an emerging deal between Iran and the P5 +1 to restrain the Iranian nuclear program. The end of the month is the deadline for reaching a framework agreement on that deal, and both Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have made it clear that absent unforeseen circumstances, there will be no extension.

As high-level politics and diplomacy swirl, public sentiment constrains what leaders can do.  The views of the American people about Iran are clear—but surprisingly complex.

The baseline of American opinion has been firm and unwavering for decades: a bad regime governs Iran, and that regime is an enemy of the United States. If there were a competition for “least favored nation” status, Iran and North Korea as now governed would be the finalists.

That does not mean that the people see Iran as the biggest foreign challenge the United States faces; far from it. A survey conducted by Brookings non-resident fellow Shibley Telhami in late 2014 found that fully 70 percent view the rise of ISIS as the largest threat to American interests, versus only 12 percent for Iran and its policies. That helps explain why, according to a CBS News poll released on February 19, a solid majority (57 percent) of Americans now supports the deployment of U.S. ground forces to defeat ISIS.  By contrast, previous surveys have found solid majorities endorsing the idea that the Iranian threat can be contained without military action—at least for now.

Nor does public hostility to Iran mean that Americans want their government to shun the Iranian regime. On the contrary: last November, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 67 percent of Americans—including majorities of Republicans and Independents as well as Democrats–support U.S. leaders meeting and talking with the leaders of Iran. And 62 percent support the current interim agreement with Iran, which they understand to ease some international sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran restricting but not eliminating its nuclear program and submitting to tougher inspections of its nuclear facilities. 

This solid support for the interim agreement suggests that the American people are inclined to accept the best results the current negotiations can achieve—namely, a long-term deal that leaves Iran with a substantial nuclear infrastructure, subjects it to rigorous inspections, and phases out sanctions over an extended period. 

What should happen if the Iranians commit a major violation of the agreement?  According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 60 percent of Americans (including 55 percent of Democrats) would favor a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Previous surveys—by CBS News, the Pew Research Center, and Reuters, among others—have found that Americans would favor a U.S. strike to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons.

These clear but complex public views will shape the American reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s forthcoming speech. On the one hand, Americans’ support for Israel remains very strong, and there will be visceral sympathy for Israel’s desire to abate what it sees as an existential threat. On the other hand, the evidence suggests that the American people would like to see their leaders strike a deal with Iran, even if it leaves some nuclear infrastructure in place, impose the toughest possible inspection regime—and harshly punish major violations. In short, Americans are willing to use force against Iran, but only after they have tested the consequences of a negotiated deal and found them wanting.  If Americans regard Netanyahu as trying to block any agreement that is feasible in the real world and to set the United States on an inexorable course to war with Iran, they are unlikely to support him.

Benjamin Netanyahu is a man with a mission—ensuring that what happened to Jews in the 20th century does not happen again in the 21st. He views the Iranian regime as the implacable enemy of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. He sees himself as the Jews’ Winston Churchill—the stubborn bearer of an unpleasant truth that most people do not wish to hear about a mortal danger they cannot imagine. 

Given all this, it is reasonable to expect Netanyahu’s address to Congress to be Churchillian. But he risks overplaying his hand. Despite FDR’s support for the British cause, the New World was not prepared fully to make common cause with the Old until it was directly attacked. Today, Americans see a substantial overlap between their country’s interests and those of Israel’s—but not an identity of interests. 

The Israeli government knows this. As its ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, candidly stated in a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, “The basic problem is that our policies regarding Iran are not fully aligned. That is a product of many things, including that Israel is closer and more vulnerable to this threat, and has no margin of error.”

As the Prime Minister crafts his speech to Congress, no doubt with Dermer’s help, he should keep both sides of this difference firmly in view. The last thing he should want is a negative reception in the United States that fuels Israeli swing voters’ doubts about his capacity to manage Israel’s most important relationship.