After much thought, I have made the decision not to attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's March 3 scheduled address before a joint session of Congress, while still hoping it will either be postponed to a more appropriate date or delivered in a closed session.
As a Jew, support for Israel is in my DNA. Throughout my nine terms in the U.S. House, I have advocated that Congress and the administration stand with Israel in a bipartisan way to protect Israel's security and very right to exist. I strongly agree with both the prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States that Iran can never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon.
That is why I feel particularly anguished that the ill-advised invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner has managed to threaten, in my view, both the security of Israel and the historic bipartisan support in the Congress.
Much has been made of the ham-handed politics: inviting the prime minister to speak two weeks before his election and failing to consult with either the president or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. As much as I agree with those critics, I am more concerned about two lasting and serious consequences that could result from the prime minister's actions.
First is the scuttling of the delicate negotiations with Iran, the goal of which is to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. The prime minister wants the negotiations to end, and his purpose in speaking to the Congress is to convince us that the president is about to agree to a deal that threatens Israel's existence. He believes the president is naïve in thinking that he and the P5+1 can achieve any agreement that will stop Iran from rushing toward a bomb.
The prime minister may be correct that no deal can be reached. In fact, President Obama and his negotiators go into this with eyes wide open. As the president has said, "A bad deal is worse than no deal." But even if there is only a small chance that an agreement can be reached that will prevent Iran from building, perhaps within months, a nuclear weapon, why not keep working at it? Having been briefed about some of the non-negotiables that the U.S. and our allies have put forth, I strongly favor letting the talks proceed unhindered. If the talks are to fail, let Iran be the party that walks away from the table rather than the United States. If the U.S. were the cause of the collapse, our allies in the carefully crafted P5+1 would drop their support for the sanctions regime, shattering the international effort to stop Iran.
What is the alternative to an agreement? Yes, the United States will increase sanctions. But does anyone doubt that Iran will build a nuclear weapon regardless of sanctions? Then the choices will be ugly: accepting a nuclear-weaponized Iran or accepting military action (i.e., war with Iran). For me it's obvious that we must give the negotiations a chance. And, in the meantime, Iran has essentially halted its weapons program under the Joint Plan of Action while the talks are ongoing.
My second concern is the damage that has been done to bipartisan support for Israel. This is not the first time that the Republicans have tried to divide the Democrats and paint themselves as the only true supporters of Israel. The reality is that, when it comes to tangible deliverables, the Obama administration has been unfailing in its cooperation with Israel -- more so than most, if not all, administrations over the last 40 years.
As columnist Doug Bloomfield notes:
• Obama has never embargoed arms to Israel as Reagan did to punish it for bombing Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor. Reagan even joined with Iraqi diplomats in writing and passing a UN resolution condemning the Israeli attack.
• Obama never sought to delay or cut aid to Israel approved by Congress as both the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations did.
• President Ford ordered a "reassessment" of relations with Israel in 1975 because of what the administration called Israeli "intransigence" in negotiations with Egypt and Syria.
As an eight-year member of the House Intelligence Committee, I know for a fact that our security and intelligence agencies have never worked more closely, making it all the harder to swallow the prime minister coming to lobby our Congress, in the most public and heretofore prestigious settings, to reject U.S. efforts to peacefully eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran. As Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, said:
Netanyahu's position will not change the West's position on the Iranian issue, but his actions bring our relationship with the Americans to an extreme point and this might extract an unbearable price from us in the future.
In talking to my Democratic colleagues, I believe this is not an idle concern.
There is still time to reschedule or relocate the speech. Prime Minister Netanyahu, his ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, and House Speaker John Boehner should immediately rethink this dangerous mistake and follow the advice of former Ambassador Michael Oren, who said, "It's advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government." And I would add, "So as not to bring Israel, the United States and perhaps the world closer to war with Iran."