The breach of protocol by the Speaker of the House — inviting a foreign head of state to address Congress with the explicit goal of undermining the president's foreign policy — has unleashed furious partisan rancor surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech tomorrow. National Security Adviser Susan Rice deemed the speech "destructive of the fabric of the relationship" between the United States and Israel.
More than 40 Democratic members of Congress have publicly pledged to skip the speech to show their support for President Obama's goal of negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. Additional offices have privately confirmed that they are joining the growing ranks of speech skippers as well.
Some members of Congress opposed the way in which Netanyahu was invited, such as freshman Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who told constituents he was "troubled by the nature of the invitation." He plans nevertheless on attending to hear out the prime minister. But will Netanyahu have anything illuminating to tell Congress about Iran's nuclear program? History suggests not. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out last week, Netanyahu has an awful track record as a prognosticator on Middle Eastern countries' development of weapons of mass destruction. And, of course, Netanyahu omits any mention of Israel's undeclared but hardly secret nuclear arsenal.
Israeli political leaders have engaged in near-apocalyptic warnings of Iran's supposed breakout nuclear weapons capability since the early 1990s, according to Gareth Porter's meticulously researched book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. Netanyahu has vigorously built on this Chicken Little approach, which reached its apogee of absurdity when the Israeli prime minister lectured heads of state at the U.N. General Assembly in 2012 with a cartoonish presentation on the "late hour" at hand to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Coloring in a Wile E. Coyote-like diagram, Netanyahu affirmed Iran was "a year, maybe only a few months" from producing a nuclear detonator.
Never mind that U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates diametrically opposed Netanyahu's dire predictions. A few months before Netanyahu's speech to the U.N., U.S. intelligence officials reiterated their conclusion from a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate — reflecting the consensus of all 16 US intelligence agencies — that Iran had abandoned research on its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that no evidence existed suggesting Iranian intent to restart it. Furthermore, according to a recently leaked intelligence report, Al Jazeera reports that the Israeli foreign intelligence agency Mossad concluded one month after Netanyahu's speech that Iran was "not performing the activity necessary to produce [nuclear] weapons." Instead, Mossad assessed that Iranian nuclear scientists were "working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate such as enrichment reactors."
While Netanyahu makes wildly inaccurate claims about purported programs of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, he has maintained strict silence about Israel's widely reported covert arsenal of an estimated 80 nuclear warheads, along with the Jericho 1 and 2 ballistic missiles to deliver them. Will Netanyahu care to explain in his speech to Congress why Israel, unlike Iran, remains a nuclear rogue state which has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty?
Nor will members of Congress seeking edification on the peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue learn anything new from Netanyahu's speech. In his 2011 speech to Congress, the prime minister summed up his obliviousness by simultaneously feigning that the people of Israel "are not foreign occupiers" of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem — a position at odds with U.S. policy — while acknowledging that 650,000 Israelis had illegally colonized this land.
Netanyahu claims to have special knowledge of the details of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members and Germany) that warrant the urgent attention of members of Congress, an assertion disputed by the State Department. If Netanyahu possesses such information, "it sounds like he knows more than the negotiators, since there's no deal yet," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki wryly noted. Given Netanyahu's consistently wrong assessments of Iraq and Iran's nuclear capabilities and his obfuscation of Israel's nuclear arsenal, why should members of Congress waste their time listening to yet more outlandish claims?
Correction: This piece previously stated that Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) is one of a group of members of Congress who will not attend the speech in order to "show their support for President Obama's goal of negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran." Jones is not attending the speech, but as he states in this C-SPAN interview, "It's not a protest ... I just don't go to listen to foreign leaders." We regret the error.
Update: The number of Democratic members of Congress not attending the speech has been updated.
Ruebner is policy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.