No one can predict with any certainty what the fallout from Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress will be until after it takes place next month. And it’s possible it won’t take place at all. The prime minister could yield to the pressure to stay home, or events in Israel could prevent him from leaving the country.
But at this point it seems likely he will be taking the lectern in the room where presidents deliver their State of the Union address. And he will be delivering a stern warning to the House and Senate about the dangers of a nuclear deal with Iran, a deal that is one of President Obama’s highest priorities. That warning will be coupled with the implied threat that supporting an agreement with Iran could be dangerous to a legislator’s political health. (In addition to being prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu is the de facto leader of the Israel lobby.)
It is possible, however, to make one prediction about the speech and its aftermath without fear of being proven wrong. Neither the speech nor the ugliness surrounding it will immediately alter the fundamental relationship between the United States and Israel. That is because it is a relationship buttressed not merely by emotional or strategic considerations but, more significantly, by the power of the lobby.
That power—manifested in the belief among US politicians that deviating from Israel’s position on any issue could result in a loss of campaign contributions or their diversion to an opponent—makes challenging the “special relationship” a very dangerous proposition for politicians at every level. That includes the ones who live in the White House or aspire to. Few are willing to risk it, as evidenced by the fact that so far only about two dozen Democrats have gone on record to say that they will boycott the speech.
At the same time, it is clear that the speech and the controversy surrounding it are already negatively affecting the US-Israel relationship, chipping away at a once solid monolith in potentially significant ways. In fact, at least three of those effects are already obvious and are unlikely to disappear even if the speech should end up not being delivered as planned.
The first is that support for the Israeli government is no longer the consensus issue it previously was. Not long ago, criticizing actions of the government of Israel automatically took politicians or journalists beyond the pale, leaving them permanently stained as anti-Israel or worse. No more, with criticism of Netanyahu’s visit emanating from across the ideological and political spectrum, from the New York Times editorial board to Fox News. Within the Jewish community, not only J Street but the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement (by far the largest Jewish religious denomination) have urged that the speech be canceled.