Visiting KU professor shares Israeli perception of Netanyahu visit

Many Israelis are cynical about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States, viewing it as an attempt to drum up popularity for his reelection that could even harm Israel’s relationship with America, a Kansas University visiting professor says.

“There is a lot of criticism in Israeli society and in the media … about his speech,” said Gal Levy, Visiting Israeli Professor in KU’s Jewish Studies program. Levy, a native of Israel who teaches at the Open University of Israel, is spending this school year at KU.

With Israel’s election in two weeks, Netanyahu is considered the leading candidate in the race though his party is not doing well in the polls, Levy said.

Netanhayu’s U.S. visit is perceived as an attempt to strengthen his position and remind voters that he’s still the best suited to lead Israel, particularly at a time when people are concerned about security issues, Levy said. In contrast, his leading challenger, Isaac Herzog, has campaigned on domestic issues.

While Israelis see party politics of one kind — Netanyahu’s Likud v. Herzog’s Zionist Union — many Americans are talking about other party politics in connection with the visit — Republican v. Democrat.

Netanyahu is scheduled to speak Tuesday to a joint meeting of Congress about the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The speech has spurred controversy because House Speaker John Boehner unilaterally invited Netanyahu to appear at a time when international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program are at a critical juncture. Boehner, R-Ohio, did not consult with the White House or Democratic leaders.

Netanyahu told a Jewish lobby group on Monday that his speech is not intended to inject Israel into American political debate, yet some Democrats plan to skip his address.

In the end, whether Israeli or stateside, it’s not good for the public to focus on partisan politics over major political concerns, Levy said.

“We’re missing the opportunity to have a more rational and to-the-point debate about the nuclear issue,” he said. “We’re dealing with the question of Boehner’s letter instead of dealing with the real thing.”

And in Israel, he said, “Netanyahu’s insistence to focus on this issue is considered as an attempt to shift public attention away from the issues of rocketing housing prices, high cost of living and lacking social services — which are still seen in public opinion polls as the main concern of the voters.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.