Americans want to hear Netanyahu

In this Dec. 3, 2014, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

How do Americans feel about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing Congress next month? According to one new poll, more support it than object — despite the controversy over the way he was invited.

The data, reported here for the first time, was commissioned by the Israel Project, a pro-Israel group. It adds important context to a CNN/ORC poll, released Tuesday, which showed that 63 percent of Americans disapprove of the way House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to the joint session. Boehner said Sunday that he had intentionally kept his plans secret from the Barack Obama administration, because he feared White House “interference” with the speech, now scheduled for March 3.

While it may be true that most Americans don’t like Boehner’s tactics, it’s not the case that they don’t want Netanyahu to go through with it. According to the TIP data, 25 percent of 1,563 respondents to the new poll said they agreed more with the statement:

“Some people say Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is in the middle of an election at home, and it is inappropriate for the U.S. to host him for a speech only two weeks before the election is being held. They say this is a Republican attempt to make Netanyahu look stronger before his election.”

While 43 percent of respondents said they agreed more with the following statement:

“Other people say Iran is getting closer to building a nuclear weapon. As one of the world’s most knowledgeable leaders on the Middle East and the Iranian nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu should address Congress before the March 31 deadline for a political framework with Iran.”

Those are detailed questions for a news survey, which was conducted by Paragon Insights, and one can debate whether the reference to Netanyahu’s credentials was relevant. Nonetheless, the responses make clear that more Americans than not now believe it’s a good idea to let Netanyahu make his case.

Also, more respondents than not (47 percent to 32 percent) disapprove of the way the administration has reacted to the coming speech. Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry have all said they won’t meet with Netanyahu while he is in Washington, citing a desire not to interfere in the Israeli elections coming March 17.

Breaking down the numbers a different way, the poll asked respondents whether it was appropriate to let Netanyahu speak to Congress considering he is so close to his own election. Only 22 percent of respondents said that Netanyahu should be barred from speaking because of his personal political interests.

Several Democratic lawmakers have pledged to boycott the Netanyahu speech, but the poll suggests that this might have a political cost. More than a third of respondents said they would be less likely to vote to re-elect their congressman if he or she boycotted the speech, while 27 percent said it would make them more likely to support re-election.

“The numbers are stark,” said Omri Ceren, the Israel Project’s managing director for press and strategy. “Even Americans who may be ambivalent about how the Netanyahu speech came together ... would be less likely to vote for a congressperson who boycotted.”

The poll was conducted from Feb. 12-16 by Paragon’s Nathan Klein, who has been a pollster for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The interviews were conducted online. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. Just over half of respondents described themselves as “supporters” or “strong supporters” of Israel.

Taken together, the CNN and TIP polls show that Americans are unhappy with both the Republican congressional leadership and the Obama administration over their handling of the speech. But that does not mean that Americans don’t want to hear what the Israeli leader has to say.

Perhaps both Congress and the administration should recognize that Netanyahu is a known entity to Americans, people understand his politics and his motivations, and the success or failure of his speech will depend on its content, not on how leaders in Washington react.

Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist.