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Why Netanyahu's speech to Congress is backfiring, in two tweets

A previous Netanyahu address to a joint session of Congress.
A previous Netanyahu address to a joint session of Congress.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement on Tuesday reaffirming his commitment to speak to a joint session of Congress. The planned March 3 speech is infuriating Democrats on the Hill, who want him to cancel or postpone, making Netanyahu's statement news in its own right.

But Netanyahu's specific words are really telling. When his Twitter account sent out two sentences from the statement, it ended up unintentionally pointing out exactly why the speech has become such a political problem for him, and created such controversy:

These two statements are more than a little contradictory. The "important role" he will encourage Congress to play is to pass Iran sanctions. But those sanctions, championed in no small part by Republicans, would undermine one of Obama's chief foreign policy goals: an Iran nuclear deal. So when Netanyahu says he does not "seek a confrontation with the President," maybe that's true, but the stated goal of his trip is clearly and predictably putting him into exactly the sort of confrontation he denies seeking.

Netanyahu does appear earnestly and deeply concerned that any nuclear deal with Iran would be a sham, and would leave his country less safe. But that means his whole visit is designed in such a way as to necessarily antagonize the president. Netanyahu is coming on the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). The speech is designed to whip up support for a bill Obama opposes. Of course Netanyahu is picking a fight with the president, even if that's not actually his principal goal.

Incidentally, that confrontation is also why Netanyahu's strategy so far appears to be blowing up in his face — and why he clearly feels the need to downplay any tension with the White House.

Netanyahu's goal is to prevent what he sees as a bad Iran deal. If he wants Congress to do that, then he needs Democratic votes to support sanctions and to override a certain Obama veto.

But the effect of that has been to make Democrats furious that Netanyahu is embarrassing Obama so publicly, and in their view politicizing Israel (the overwhelming bulk of Democrats see support for Israel as a bipartisan position). While they might be willing to vote against their president occasionally, they're very hesitant to take sides with Republicans when a Democratic president is being so openly insulted.

Vice President Joe Biden, who would normally be on camera in a joint session, has said he won't attend Netanyahu's speech. Neither will at least 15 congressional Democrats. Key Dems have already agreed to move the vote back on the Iran sanctions vote to March 24 — well after the March 1 deadline for a framework nuclear agreement with Iran. The Democratic sponsor of the sanctions bill, Sen. Robert Menendez, insists this has nothing to do with the speech, but that's very hard to believe.

So Netanyahu is in an impossible position. On the one hand, he's publicly committed to giving this speech, and doesn't want to back down. But on the other hand, he needs to somehow convince Dems that this speech isn't a finger stuck straight in the president's eye. Judging by this jumbled statement, that's going to be a very difficult needle to thread.

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