By Will Fuller
Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress on the Iranian nuclear deal sparked massive controversy. Nearly sixty Congressional Democrats boycotted the speech in protest of what they saw as a massive breach of protocol, due to Speaker Boehner’s failure to consult with the President on a matter of international diplomacy. In this memo I will argue that there were two primary actors reacting to Speaker Boehner’s invitation: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Congressional Democrats who boycotted the speech. Each of these actors were playing a two level game; trying to influence the Iran deal and trying to please domestic constituencies through signaling.
Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran has displayed hostile rhetoric and actions towards the United States and Israel. For many years, Iran has been researching nuclear technology, allegedly in pursuit of a peaceful nuclear energy program. Skeptics, however, instead believe that Iran has been attempting to develop a nuclear weapon. Such a development would radically alter the security of the Middle East, and could present an existential threat to Israel. Recently, President Barack Obama engaged in diplomacy with Iran to try to negotiate a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. These efforts were opposed by Netanyahu and Congressional Republicans.
Speaker Boehner invited Prime Minister Netanyahu for two reasons: to provide Netanyahu an avenue to argue against the Iran deal, as well as to please domestic constituencies who are opposed to the Iran deal. Evangelical Christians in the United States are the strongest supporters of Israel and will side with Israel on most foreign policy issues. Additionally, there are a number of powerful pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington, DC who hold considerable sway over Congress. It was in Speaker Boehner’s interest to ensure these groups remained happy in order to help Republicans in the House of Representatives continue to win elections.
Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted the invitation to speak before Congress as a way of signaling his opposition to the Iran deal. Netanyahu firmly believed that any deal with Iran that allow the continued development of nuclear technology would be catastrophic for Israel. He therefore believed the negotiated deal to be ineffective, and hoped that his vocal opposition would galvanize the United States to reconsider the agreement. Since Netanyahu believed that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel, the risk of straining relations with President Obama was a price worth paying to prevent the enaction of the deal.
Netanyahu also faced a hotly contested election in Israel, scheduled for after his address to Congress. Given the external threat of Iran, Netanyahu believed the March election to be of utmost importance. His trip to Washington was an attempt to show the Israeli people that he was an influential leader that could successfully navigate the country through troubling times. Many commentators noted that this was Netanyahu’s third speech to Congress, a feat only matched by Winston Churchill. Netanyahu appeared to be attempting to compare his situation to that of Britain during World War II; a comparison particularly poignant to the Jewish people.
The Congressional Democrats who opposed the deal were also signaling. Their support for President Obama was paramount, and they believed that the Iran deal was the best way to both support the President and avoid another Middle Eastern war. This position was not without risk, as powerful lobbies pushed for representatives to attend the speech. Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attended despite her outspoken opposition.
Similarly, the boycotting representatives used their absence as a means of countering Speaker Boehner and the Republicans. They believed that Boehner’s invitation was a partisan jab at the President. By calling out the Speaker’s move as radically partisan and a shocking breach of protocol, these Democrats believed they could turn the country against the Republicans in an effort to gain support.
Ultimately, the Democrats were able to successfully counter Netanyahu internationally. American opinion broke strongly against Netanyahu’s speech, with support for Netanyahu among Americans dropping seven points. Furthermore, Democrats were able to prevent a Congressional blocking of the deal. Although Netanyahu was unable to scuttle the deal, he and his party maintained power in the parliamentary elections. Although both sides risked threats, they were able to credibly signal to their domestic audiences the importance of their position. This resulted in a small majority of Americans supporting the Democratic position on the Iran deal and Netanyahu soundly winning reelection.
Will Fuller is an incoming second year at GPS. His focus is International Politics with a regional interest in China and Southeast Asia. He is also the Communications Director for JIPS.
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