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Protesters ready for Netanyahu’s gamble in Congress

Demonstrators rally in Washington, DC and New York City to protest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s congressional address on US-Iran nuclear talks
Netanyahu has faced criticism for insulting a US president in his own backyard and for weakening cross-party US support for Israel (AFP)

NEW YORK – It’s cold weather to be standing in the street, holding a placard decrying Israel. 

But for those rallying in New York and Washington, the chilly winter air is nothing compared to the row that has frosted relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.

“We’re protesting because Netanyahu does not represent the views of all American Jews and because it’s inappropriate for Israel to try and force the US into an unnecessary war with Iran,” Seth Morrison, a demonstrator, told Middle East Eye (MEE).

Netanyahu is in the US to persuade lawmakers at a joint session of Congress on Tuesday that Obama’s strategy for stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons is flawed and could leave Israel exposed to a doomsday strike.

But, in accepting a unilateral invitation from Republicans, he has faced criticism for insulting a US president in his own backyard and for weakening cross-party US support for Israel by alienating Democrats. The two leaders will not meet this week.

Netanyahu downplayed claims of a fallout when addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, on Monday. “Reports of the demise of the Israeli-US relationship is not only premature, they’re just wrong,” he said. 

The US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said US-Israeli relations “should never be politicised” and defended Obama’s pursuit of a deal with Iran, saying it could deliver security. “We know the stakes of a nuclear-armed Iran,” she said.

Protesters gathered in Washington ahead of Netanyahu’s address, using a social media campaign #SkipTheSpeech to dissuade congressmen from taking their seats. Some 30-40 Democrats are expected to stay away, including Vice President Joe Biden. 

Demonstrators include Morrison’s group, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Roots Action, American Muslims for Palestine, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and others with long-standing concern over Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank.

The pro-Israel Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) is organising its own rally on Capitol Hill. The group warns of a “serious, frightening imminent danger of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, which threaten Israel with destruction, meaning the murder of millions of Jews”.

A Pew Research Center survey found last week that more Americans viewed Netanyahu favourably (38 per cent) than unfavourably (27 percent). He is about twice as popular among Republicans as he is with Democrats, and 23 per cent of respondents had never heard of him.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Geneva on Monday for talks on reaching a framework deal with Iran and major powers by the end of March deadline. It is expected to allow Iran to continue enriching uranium under an inspection regime that keeps it one year from a weapons capability.

Netanyahu has long been suspicious of the talks, fearing the US and its negotiating partners will leave Tehran too close to the threshold. In evoking powerful language, he has been likened to Winston Churchill in the 1930s: a lone voice speaking out against the appeasement of Nazi Germany. 

Conversely, Obama’s pursuit of détente with Iran compares to former US President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic breakthrough with China in the 1970s. Better Washington-Tehran relations could make the turbulent Middle East more secure, analysts say.

“Netanyahu is 100 percent wrong. Without a deal, we have two options: Tehran develops nuclear weapons as soon as it wants, or we go to war,” Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, told MEE. “Even Netanyahu’s military and intelligence staff do want war with Iran, which would not stop its nuclear activity.”

Netanyahu’s strategy came under greater scrutiny last month when it emerged that he is at odds with his own military chiefs and his warnings about the extent of Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity was direr than was described in Mossad reports.

Critics accuse him of using Congress to vaunt his security credentials, a vote-winning gambit ahead of Israel’s elections on 17 March. Back home, the Israeli leader is battling corruption allegations and protests over housing shortages.

“Netanyahu has proven to be a terrible prognosticator,” said Josh Ruebner, one of the protest organisers. “His 2002 prediction of Iraqi weapons was dead wrong and his scare-mongering about Iran’s nuclear capabilities has been contradicted by both US and Israeli intelligence agencies.”

Obama says that negotiations with Iran are the best option for the US and Israel. He speaks of the alternatives to a deal - US-led military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities - as distasteful, and has pledged to veto a Republican congressional bid to derail the talks.

“Military options in Iran are a mixed bag at best; Netanyahu doesn’t convey that nuance,” Michael O’Hanlon, a defence expert at Brookings Institution, a think tank, told MEE. “He dramatises and overdoes his argument without reflecting its limitations. 

“He wants America to do his dirty work for him, even when it won’t work that well.”

Not everyone agrees. Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, says Obama has made too many concessions in pursuit of a bargain. The deal has shifted “from preventing proliferation to managing it” and sets a worrying precedent, he told a congressional committee in January.

“If the other countries in the region conclude that America has approved the development of an enrichment capability within one year of a nuclear weapon … we will live in a proliferated world in which everybody … will be very close to the trigger point,” he told a congressional committee in January,” he said.