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Netanyahu's Congress speech: An election stunt, after all

Netanyahu didn’t offer any new thinking on Iran, but he might have succeeded in regaining control over elections that were slipping away from him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of Congress at a joint Session in Washington DC, US. (photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of Congress at a joint Session in Washington DC, US. (photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Ever since Speaker of the House John Boehner revealed his invitation to the Israeli prime minister to speak before a joint session of Congress, people have been wondering who exactly is playing who here. Is Bibi risking Israeli-American relations in order to help the GOP score points against President Obama, or did Boehner break protocol — by not informing the White House of the invitation — in order to help Netanyahu in the coming elections? Tonight we got our answer: more the latter than the former.

As far as the international debate on the deal with Iran goes, Bibi’s positions were absurd. Not only did he provide zero alternatives to the deal he is seeking to prevent, he actually asked his biggest ally to walk out of negotiations with Iran, tighten sanctions and wait for regime change. That is not only highly impractical (even if the U.S. is convinced to adopt Netanyahu’s proposed policy, there is little chance Russia or China will do the same), but most chances are that Iran would only intensify its enrichment efforts. In Netanyahu’s playbook, this leads to the military option. Since very few people in the U.S. are anxious to go to war with Iran, Netanyahu actually made selling the deal easier, as the Washington Post  was quick to point out. If even Bibi doesn’t have an alternative strategy to negotiations, the logical conclusion would be to go ahead with the deal. After all, one could always end up going to war if Iran breaks its obligations, and there is no need to do that right now.

Sure enough, the Republicans might have had some fun Tuesday night, especially in seeing all of Israel’s supporters in the Democratic Party moving uncomfortably in their seats. However, I do not think Bibi gave them much to work with; war with Iran does not seem like a winning ticket.

As far as Netanyahu’s political interests are concerned, however, the speech was a major success. Israelis were highly impressed, a sentiment I even heard coming from Bibi’s critics. Likud supporters were practically euphoric, acting as if their quarterback delivered the perfect pass at the last second. This week’s polls were bad for Likud, especially one published several hours before the speech, which gave the party only 21 seats, as opposed to Labor’s 24. Netanyahu’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc was given 54 seats — the same as the left/center/Palestinian opposition. Netanyahu can still end up prime minister with such an outcome, but the trends are certainly against him. The most troubling aspect, at least as far as Bibi is concerned, is that some of the undecided voters have begun breaking — and not in his favor.

This is where the speech can make a difference. Almost all political strategists expected Netanyahu to get a bump from his trip to Washington, perhaps even two to three seats. If this modest effect takes place (not to mention lasts), it could be enough for Bibi to secure a clear majority in the Knesset, thereby forcing Labor to sit in his government under his own terms. The other option is for him to form a narrow right-wing coalition.

Bibi used every card in the Israeli book — from the Holocaust to ISIS — but what really won over the Israelis was watching him receive countless standing ovations. Recently, Israelis have gotten used to seeing the dark side of Bibi’s imperial style, especially in the wake of the revelations over the Netanyahu family’s expenses, as well as their attitude toward workers in their household. But Congress saw King Bibi at his best, and I think many Israelis appreciated that. It wasn’t the policy but the spectacle that made the difference.

Again, my impression is that this speech was received very differently abroad and in Israel, which means that some of the things that Israelis liked probably alienated everyone else. Right now, however, all Netanyahu cares about is the domestic game. The irony is that if he does win the election, perhaps even thanks to his performance tonight, he will have to deal with the fallout from the speech, which will include a very upset Obama administration.

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    COMMENTS

    1. mt noise

      “very upset Obama administration”? They are upset that Bibi dares to breath air.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        Perhaps in response the Knesset could invite Jimmy Carter to give a lecture on the illegality, immorality and foolishness of the continued settlement enterprise and the developing Apartheid regime?

        Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      One can only hope that Netanyahu wins reelection and cements himself as Israel’s face for all the world to see.

      He is the best friend the BDS movement has ever had.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Absolutely, let Netanyahu own it. Looking forward to Meir Dagan’s words at the upcoming rally. It’s easy to debunk Netanyahu in terms of the USA’s and Israel’s real interests but there is no one like Dagan to debunk this charlatan in front of an Israeli audience. You go before Congress and call the Americans naive in an incredibly patronizing speech, while at the same time your own Mossad director and the rest of your own security establishment tells you you’re an idiot and an actual danger to the security and future of Israel? OK. Heck of a job Brownie.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben Zakkai

        Agreed. Let Netanyahu and his policies continue to reign — which is fair, since they pretty well represent the Israeli mainstream, and his opponents on the center-left have failed to offer any brave, principled, credible, creative or inspiring alternative vision — and let the chips fall where they may. Hello Hague.

        Reply to Comment
      • Weiss

        So true…

        He is the poster boy for Israeli Isolation.

        Right wingers should careful what they wish for …

        This will only increase momentum of the Boycott…

        Reply to Comment
    3. Jello

      By your silly logic any deal that Iran offers should be accepted by Washington. And in fact, the bad deal that Iran is proposing is what Obama wants to accept because for him any deal would be an achievement that he wants to build his foreign policy legacy on, even if the Iranians used that deal to break-out within a few years to a nuclear weapon. It sounds short-sighted but the Obama administration has yet to be accused of having any credible long-term foreign policy. And the usual response is that the West would be able to detect and mobilize to counter an Iranian push to get a nuclear weapon, but Obama has already taken the military option off the table, so that isn’t much of a credible threat to Iran, is it? And in any case, the deal on the table would effectively leave the Iranians wide open to develop nuclear weapons when the deal expires. So, the entire thing depends on Iranian goodwill which will continuously need to be sated with concessions and other forms of appeasement. Which suggests that signing the deal would actually put Iran in an excellent position to continue taking over the Middle East while threatening the West of breaking the agreement at any point if the West ever decided to actually counter Iran. And it would leave Iran within a short window to breakout whenever it chose to do so. How is that even a remotely decent deal unless one thinks the same people that are currently sponsoring terrorists and militias to ethnically cleanse villages in Iraq and continue to support a genocidal regime in Syria which drops barrels of explosives on its own population will tomorrow become constructive and reliable partners? And that regime does all that while spending heavily to spread its “Death to America, Death to Israel” ideology across the Middle East? Any deal that is based on the good will of an Islamic revolutionary fundamentalist regime is in principle a stupid idea.

      The funny thing to me is that the same people that have been yelling their heads off about how Iran is not building a nuclear weapon are now saying explicitly that Iran can have a nuclear weapon within 2 or 3 months in no agreement is signed. This goes to the lack of credibility of those that argue that Bibi has been wrong or is wrong right now in his assessment of the Iranian nuclear program.

      If Iran is faced with the prospect of additional crippling sanctions, and of the realistic possibility of airstrikes then it will come back to the table with a better offer because really it would have no choice. That is what Bibi is proposing.

      It was a great speech and it makes perfect sense, and honestly I am pretty sure you that you are clear-headed enough to know that Bibi is right even if you can’t quite bring yourself to admit it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Yeah, Right

        “If Iran is faced with the prospect of additional crippling sanctions, and of the realistic possibility of airstrikes then it will come back to the table with a better offer because really it would have no choice.”

        Actually, Iran would have a much better choice open to it: go to the **other** five members of the P5+1 and ask them if they ever agreed to this nonsense.

        The answer from at least two of them (and probably from all five) will be this: heck, no, we think this is crazy talk from a paranoid loony.

        Because that’s the flaw in your argument that the Obama administration keeps pointing to, even if you refuse to listen.

        As in: the sanctions regime is in place only because The Rest Of The World agrees to obey it, precisely because the amount of Iran/USA trade is…. zero, and has been for decades.

        So if the USA were to adopt Netanyahu’s whacky-way-out advice then The Rest Of The World will bolt for the door and, furthermore, they will be loudly blame the USA for that stampede.

        Net result: the sanctions regime will collapse, the Iranians will have exactly what they most desire (sanctions-relief), the USA will be left with egg on its face, and Netanyahu will be putting on his most smarmy I-told-you-so face.

        Quite why the Americans would want to see that outcome is…. well… care to explain?

        The Obama Administration is shouting that out to everyone who cares to listen i.e. the existing sanctions are only holding BECAUSE everyone else is waiting for these negotiations to reach fruition. And if the USA suddenly throws that spanner in the works then Everyone Else will give up on Uncle Sam and abandon those sanctions.

        Obama is well-nigh shouting that from the rooftops.

        So what’s your excuse for being so deaf, dumb and blind?

        Reply to Comment
    4. Behnam Shahariyari,

      All the talk in the world cannot hide the fact that the special relationship with israel has been replaced with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a real nation

      Reply to Comment
    5. AIPAC

      The important part of this puzzle is how this standing ovation spectacle was achieved. On this, Thomas Friedman’s comment in the New York Times after a similar spectacle in 2011 is even truer today that it was then: “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

      So let’s get this straight: AIPAC is not the Jewish lobby. It’s the Likud’s electoral commando in DC.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        If a donkey came to AIPAC, or Capitol Hill, dressed in blue and white it would get umpteen standing ovations. Sorry, let me withdraw that remark – a donkey did come to Capital Hill yesterday, and yes there were standing ovations, but most of the folks who were dragooned there, in order to collect their stipends, were exceedingly embarrassed by the whole fiasco.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Yeah, Right

      I would suggest that in the days and weeks ahead the fundamental flaw in Netanyahu’s speech will be laid bare for the entire US voting popln to see i.e. while he dismissed the possibility of coming to a deal with Iran he offered absolutely no alternative.

      None.
      Zip.
      Zero.

      That’s a massive problem for the pro-Lobby crowd because all that Obama needs to do is to point out that the only alternative to a negotiated deal is…. war, and that Netanyahu knows that as well as anyone.

      If Obama can make that case then he doesn’t even need to spell out the rest i.e. Netanyahu actually wants that war and, furthermore, he wants the US military – not the IDF, but the US Armed Forces – to wage that war for Israel’s benefit.

      Reply to Comment