What Brookings experts are saying about Netanyahu’s address to Congress

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at a joint meeting of Congress. His address sparked an intense debate among U.S. and Israeli lawmakers over the protocol issues raised by the invitation to speak, which came from the Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives without consultation with the Obama White House, as well as the substance of the address — a broadside against Obama’s Iran policy — and its timing during the final days of a closely contested Israeli election.

Brookings scholars weighed in on the debate, through blog posts, op-eds and the media. These include:

Fellow Natan Sachs explained why Netanyahu’s speech was so controversial.  “Israelis, by and large, don’t like it when their prime minister quarrels with the United States,” Sachs told Vox. “For most voters, especially in the core base on the right and I think center right, here’s Bibi doing something that opposition leaders cannot do: speak the way he does with his English and this reception from Americans.” Also read Sachs’ blog post on the electoral implications of the speech as well as his Haaretz op-ed with recommendations for Israeli and American strategy toward the Iran nuclear talks.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy (CMEP) at Brookings, appeared on Charlie Rose following the speech, and said, “I think the speech was very effective, as a speech, particularly at the end when Netanyahu was really playing to his domestic audience and political base more than anyone…I think that’s probably the video clip the Likud will be playing in  ads as the campaign winds down.”

Nonresident Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami looked at poll results examined U.S. public opinion related to Netanyahu’s speech. “Among Democrats, those holding favorable views of the Israeli prime minister declined from 25 percent in November to 16 percent in February, and among Independents from 21 percent to 14 percent. Correspondingly, unfavorable views increased from 22 to 26 percent among Democrats, and from 14 to 21 percent among Independents,” he wrote in Foreign Policy.

A New York Times editorial examining Netanyahu’s speech discussed American public opinion on the Iran nuclear deal, and cited Telhami’s poll results “show[ing] that a clear majority of Americans — including 61 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats — favor an agreement.” Telhami also organized and moderated the annual Sadat Forum earlier this week, featuring a discussion on the Iranian nuclear issue and the Netanyahu speech with Brookings Distinguished Fellow Ambassador Thomas Pickering, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Jessica Matthews, and CMEP Senior Fellow Suzanne Maloney.

According to Ambassador Martin Indyk, who has served as director of the Foreign Policy program and was just named Brookings Executive Vice President, Netanyahu remained against any agreement. “He was pretty clear about his opposition to the deal,” Indyk told Foreign Policy. “I believe he wants to sink it, not modify it.”

Prior to the speech, Robert Einhorn, senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Intelligence and Security and the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative, wrote an op-ed published in the International New York Times discussing Netanyahu’s angle on the Iran talks. After Netanyahu’s speech, Einhorn appeared on Christiane Amanpour and argued that the deal was “not an ideal deal, but it’s a good deal, and one that’s better than any realistic alternative.” Einhorn, who formerly participated in the negotiations with Iran as a senior State Department official, was quoted in coverage of the speech published in the Washington Post and Politico, among others.

In an op-ed on U.S. News and World Report, Maloney argued that when it comes to a deal with Iran, “The ever-present illusion of a more perfect deal is not worth risking an imperfect, but minimally sufficient, bargain.”

With the prospect of a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 looking increasingly likely and with the caveat that, “as always, Iran’s future behavior is hard to predict because its motives going into the nuclear negotiations are unclear and its decision-making is always opaque,” Senior Fellow Kenneth M. Pollack examined the possible scenarios and offered his thoughts on whether a nuclear deal would likely make Iran more or less aggressive — or neither

Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, wrote about Netanyahu’s address in contrast to Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy. “As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plays center stage at the Congress this week to slam the Iran deal-in-the-making, the Saudis are playing a more subtle game,” Riedel wrote. “Iran is priority number one. It’s more than just the nuclear issue.” The pot was also quoted in a Bloomberg News analysis of Gulf reaction to the state of play on Iran.

Last week, William Galston, who holds Brookings’ Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies, wrote about the implications of Netanyahu’s speech, warning that “[t]he 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.” And in his Washington Post column last week, Senior Fellow Robert Kagan argued that “there is no doubt that the precedent being set is a bad one” and regretted that “bringing a foreign leader before Congress to challenge a U.S. president’s policies…will be just another weapon in our bitter partisan struggle.”

And finally, for anyone wanting to see what our scholars were tweeting during Netanyahu’s speech, and reaction afterward, here’s a round-up.