Netanyahu at the Capitol: Political points scored, Israel’s security undermined

March 3, 2015
A demonstrator holds a sign during a rally near the Israeli Consulate in New York

A demonstrator holds a sign during a rally near the Israeli Consulate in New York, March 3, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

After weeks of recriminations between Israel and the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped to the podium on Tuesday morning for the main event — to deliver his speech on Iran to Congress. As Netanyahu belted out a collection of recycled warnings and laments about the threat of Iran that have been uttered countless times before — most frequently by Netanyahu himself — it was clear the Israeli prime minister had already accomplished his political goals back home just by showing up.

Netanyahu agreed to speak in front of the U.S. Congress in part to please his Republican allies and to pique the Obama administration. He achieved both of those aims in spectacular fashion.

Domestically, in Israel, Tuesday’s speech also represented the culmination of Netanyahu’s survival strategy ahead of Israel’s general election on March 17. Netanyahu’s reelection campaign has tried to keep the conversation focused squarely on Iran. By doing so, Netanyahu’s betting he can preserve his electoral base and keep them from defecting for more right-wing parties.

Netanyahu appears to have done enough during Tuesday’s address to keep him from being outflanked on his political right. The frenzied buildup to the speech helped ensure the conversation in Israel will remain centered on Iran, and on the dustup beforehand with the United States.

For an American audience tuning in on Tuesday, it might be tempting to presume Iran is the most important issue on the minds of Israeli voters, but it trails the skyrocketing cost of living and the eternal conflict with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, however, has completely monopolized Iran as an election issue. And as long as the conversation is about nukes in Tehran rather than the cost of living in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu likes his chances.

Pollsters in Israel anticipate the speech — buoyed by the very fact he refused to bow to American pressure to cancel his appearance at Congress — will help Netanyahu claw back at least one or two seats in the upcoming election. Considering Netanyahu and his center-left challengers are currently in a dead heat, that could be enough to hand Netanyahu’s Likud party the election almost comfortably.

During his remarks, Netanyahu took great pains to paint a menacing picture of a monolithic radical Islam, mashing together Iran and the Islamic State as a common enemy, despite the fierce political and religious enmity between the Shiite republic and the Sunni militia. The Israeli prime minister predictably praised the great friendship between Israel and the United States, but tactfully skirted the topic of how much strain has been placed on this friendship by the very fact of the speech taking place.

The only new thing of substance to come from the prime minister was his admission that the alternative to the “bad” nuclear deal currently being negotiated by the Obama administration was not war, but “a much better deal.” For Netanyahu, a leader who built his political career on advocating crippling sanctions backed by the threat of military force to halt Tehran’s nuclear project, reframing the debate as a choice between one deal and another was a significant concession — perhaps the greatest public compromise Netanyahu has ever made on Iran.

With this strategic pivot came a unique opportunity for the prime minister of Israel — addressing American lawmakers during prime time in Jerusalem — to articulate a clear vision of what a “better deal” on Iran would look like. Instead, Netanyahu chose to rack up political points. Offering concessions for a deal with Iran wasn’t the point after all.

The electoral gains from Netanyahu’s address to Congress may be immediate, but the long-term costs to the prime minister are severe. Reactions, like that of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said that Netanyahu had insulted the intelligence of the American people, leaving her close to tears, shows the deep wounds Netanyahu inflicted while elbowing his way to the podium.

That raises the biggest question for the Israeli Prime Minister: Was it worth it?

The P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear program will not be affected by the speech. The issues raised were far from new, and President Obama has vowed not to let Congress undermine the negotiations. The electoral gains Netanyahu will reap at home are important, but not decisive, as he remains the most likely candidate to cobble together a functional coalition and keep his post. That was the case with, or without, the seat or two he may have picked up on Tuesday.

On the flip-side, Israel’s relationship with the Obama administration is at an all time low, support for Israel — not long ago an unqualified truism in American politics — is more partisan that it had been in decades, and the Jewish community in the United States is rattled by being put on the spot to make a choice between their support for Israel and their support for their own president.

Netanyahu might hope that the crisis will resolve itself by the time Americans go to the polls in 2016. But so far, the most significant — even if unintended — consequence of his address is the tidal wave of American public consternation over the speech. That will continue to stretch the boundaries of American policy debate on Israel, making uncritical and unconditional support for the Jewish state to be much less of a prerequisite for politicians than it used to be. Paradoxically, Netanyahu’s greatest American legacy might be the beginning of an irreversible, long-term erosion of Israel’s standing in the United States.

19 comments

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I have never seen a dress tie pulled so tight as the one the Honorable House Speaker Boehner wore to proclaim his debt to AIPAC was hence forth null and void…Bibi is that Inlaw whose Doormat key will open not one lock in your wifes home….Just ask our most esteemed Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel about Bibi’s Shadow painted mustache of Hitler held beneath her nose It’s more than just the Caprice of the twelve year old’s mind that occupies the physical space we refer to as Prime Minister and our most self important ally whom therefore requires no less than an AIPAC to pen payment schedules and DOD munition contracts and fighter jet squadron delivery penalties if the chosen’s modifications are not completed on time…..Have you left anything out?

Posted by DJSanDiego | Report as abusive

I hope Israeli voters know that due to Netanyahu’s arrogant grandstanding today that they have lost friends in the United States. And if their eyes are wide open they will see what the majority of Americans see regarding the far right; The right is great at fear mongering, war mongering, being hyper critical, and completely devoid of any useful or original thought, ideas, or plans. Netanyahu apparently has no solutions for Iran, the skyrocketing cost of living in Israel, or the eternal conflict with the Palestinians. He has a lot in common with the right wing in the United States.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Does Netanyahu really consider his voters so naive to fall for his fear mongering? Why would Iran want to drop a bomb on Israel? A war with Iran’s arch enemy Saudi Arabia would seem far more likely.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Number of Israeli soldiers who served in Iraq: 0

Number of Israeli soldiers who served in Afghanistan: 0

Number of times per year Netanyahu complains about America not doing enough for him: 438

No wonder Bohner and the republicans like him. Born whiners.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Netan-yahoo speaks like a man who has staked his political career and legacy on whether he can make Iran cry uncle. Foolish choices and words. Basically, here is Netan-yahoo’s wish list for Iran:

1. Fully disarmed. Maybe some AKs are allowed but nothing bigger than that.
2. The entire country drained of water with a global “water embargo” in place to make sure they can’t obtain heavy water.
3. All industrial manufacturing activities beyond shoes and clothes are to be turned over to Israeli control to ensure they can’t make centrifuges.
4. 50 foot wall build around the entire country with Israeli Mossad/special forces units at all ports and airports conducting mandatory full body cavity search to ensure nothing “illegal” gets smuggled in.
5. The country is to be de-centralized and divided into tribal fiefdoms reminiscent of the 10th century. All armed forces are also to be disbanded. Iranians can form neighborhood watches armed with knives, sticks and maybe a few AKs instead.

Exaggerations perhaps but Netan-yahoo’s unyielding rhetoric would seem to suggest that the truth is probably not too far off. His blustering and fear mongering reminds me of a guy who got us into that little Iraq mess 12 years ago.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Netanyahu is basically asking for gun control in someone else’s country. Absurdly naive of him and his GOP sycophants. Just like we did not get to tell the USSR in the 1950’s to “Cease all further nuclear activity”…. neither can Netanyahu do anything remotely similar to Iran. You don’t think they were using “wipe America off the map” rhetoric in 1950’s USSR? Think again. All you can do is protect yourself. And quit whining.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

One more thing. Netan-yahoo kept saying how “Iran can’t be trusted” but turnabout is fair play here. Can the Israeli government be trusted? There have been many occasions where Israeli nationalist sentiments have spilled over into their foreign policies, screwing everyone but themselves in the process. Considering how Israel has rarely sacrificed “self interest” in their dealings with the rest of the world, how can they possibly expect Iran to do the opposite?

There’s a word for that. Hypocrisy.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

The only hope for peace in the middle east is a regime change in Iran. If The US or Israel do not have the will to use the overwhelming force we command to have this happen then we will have to deal with a nuclear armed regime of terrorists. Stop these time wasting negotiations, tighten sanctions as much as possible, and if that does not work then the regime in Iran must be changed by force.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

http://youtu.be/f2EoxG1ICdY
Bibi shalom

Posted by ruakh | Report as abusive

@Zotdoc, hahahahahaha
You want to go to war with IRAN! hahahahahaha
Go ahead!!!

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

We now have Iran fighting ISIS, and we get to watch. And all Bohner can do is cry about Obama doing something wrong. “But what about Benghazi!!!?”

Let’s repeat. Iran is fighting ISIS, in the desert across the world, and we get to watch for free on Twitter. Don’t complain about a good thing. This is the dream.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Zotdoc complains: “The only hope for peace in the middle east is a regime change in Iran.”

???? Iran is the only country there, NOT in some bush-devised civil war. They ARE the peace in the middle east. You don’t have to like them. They don’t have to like us. That’s reality.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I wish someone would explain to me why the Senate doesn’t have to ratify the agreement with Iran, just like every other treaty. Having grown up thinking that foreign treaties all had to be ratified by the Senate, I am extremely confused why Obama acts like their input is unwarranted, and, why Congress is scrambling to enact laws to make Obama pay attention.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

Kerry said that asking for Iran’s surrender on the nuclear issue is beyond possibility in negotiations. But that is only reasonable goal given Iran is ruled by militant clergy and will be for some time. Many of that group are true believers who will not look on the effects of their action beyond holy books promising them victory.

Kerry is admitting negotiations futile and only useful for American politicians who do not want to handle Iran in their term in office and European politicians who do not want to handle higher oil prices or other costs associated with closing the Iranian economy enough so Iran does not have economic resources for wars and nuclear arms. That means a blockade.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

As far as Iran is concerned Isis is a solution since they are concentrating on Mid-Eastern Shiites. Just make sure Americans are not in the Mid-East during the civil war and make sure Isis has just enough weapons to fight to draw but not more.

A nice 30 years war, like Europe had or even bigger and more intense and more motivated by religious intolerance, should teach the area’s peoples that Jihad is not profitable or consistent with their long term survival.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

WMD’s.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

What a speech by President Netanyahu. That is a world leader.

Posted by EdwardMax | Report as abusive

Obama needs to show some grit against the bully Netanyahu by cease cooperation with him on various fronts including intelligence exchange, providing funding to Israel, cease vetoing at the UN, and cease providing war weapons to him. That should get the attention of this little tiger.

Posted by WildWilli | Report as abusive

I’m in favor of Israel attacking Iran as long as Bimbo Yahoo leads the charge. And, when Iran launches a counter attack on Israel I think Bimo Yahoo (if he survives the attack on Iran) should be forced to do the body count of Israeli citizens. Now, that sounds like a plan.

Posted by star_messenger | Report as abusive