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With Netanyahu, confrontations are a feature, not a bug

Netanyahu believes he can impress Israelis by standing up to the world on his signature political issue. Previous rifts with the White House paid off for him — this time might be different. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, US, March 2 2015 (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. Former head of Mossad Meir Dagan blamed Netanyahu for causing Israel “the most strategic damage on Iran” (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will claim to represent the Jewish people in his speech before Congress Tuesday, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t even have an Israeli consensus behind him. His journey to Washington was heavily criticized by Israeli opposition leaders, public figures and parts of the media — especially the Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth dailies, which are taking a clear anti-Bibi stance ahead of these elections. [UPDATE: Netanyahu also had some bad election polls – the worst one this morning. see at the end of this post].

Last weekend, Yedioth ran a long interview with former Mossad head Meir Dagan, who denounced Netanyahu’s Iran strategy as a complete failure: “Netanyahu has caused Israel the most strategic damage on Iran,” said Dagan. Former head of the IDF’s northern command (and former deputy head of the Mossad) Amiram Levin blamed Netanyahu for “hitting the U.S. president between the eyes” Dagan and Levin are only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the security establishment was never on board with Netanyahu’s aggressive Iran strategy, and some reports even claim that the IDF and Mossad torpedoed the prime minister’s military option when the moment of decision came.

Yet at the same time, there is a near-consensus view among those in the political establishment that Netanyahu will only come back strengthened from Washington. A strategist for one of the parties told me this week that “most pollsters we talked to believe that Bibi’s Likud will increase by a couple of seats or so by the weekend.” Analysts attribute this to two reasons: first, with his speech, Netanyahu has managed to frame the national conversation around an issue that he dominates, and on which the opposition simple doesn’t have a clear agenda. Second, with Bibi, these kinds of confrontations are a feature, not a bug. They are part of a political strategy that builds on the intense emotions that such moments produce.

Unlike Ariel Sharon, a Likud prime minister who went after the centrist vote in his national election campaign, Netanyahu has always been about rallying the base. Domestically, he highlights the cultural war within Israeli society, constantly pushing messages against “the Left” and the media (Netanyahu has recently been accusing Yedioth Ahronoth’s publisher, Arnon “Noni” Moses, of conspiring to topple him). On foreign policy, Netanyahu is playing on the old “the entire world is against us” theme — focusing specifically on “Old Europe” and the “anti-Israeli” Obama administration, as they are commonly referred to in the pages of the free Israel Hayom daily, published by Netanyahu’s patron, billionaire Sheldon Adelson. There is a strong element of a self-fulfilling prophesy here: the more resentment Netanyahu’s behavior causes, the more it is seen as proof that he is right after all — that the world is indeed hostile to Israel and its prime minister.

This strategy has proven to be effective enough in the past: after his lecture to Obama at the White House on the 1967 borders, Netanyahu actually rose in the polls. But there are some troubling signs for Bibi this time around. Unlike in previous rounds, which ended in quasi-capitulation by the Obama administration (first on the issue of settlements, then on borders), this time there is a strong pushback against the prime minister, both in Washington and back home. This could potentially lead some of Netanyahu’s “softer” supporters to question the wisdom of his ways. It is not not clear what Netanyahu is trying to achieve: if Congress actually moves to kill an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, he will be blamed of depriving the president of a major foreign policy success, and possibly pushing the region into war. And if the agreement actually goes through, Netanyahu will appear insignificant.

Read more: The true colors of Netanyahu’s audience

Finally, Iran’s nuclear program is not the dominant issue in these elections. Perhaps Netanyahu’s greatest failure as a prime minister is his inability to truly convince Israelis that Iran is part of his agenda. The public is simply not that interested, and it seems that certain economic issues — including some very mild corruption allegations thrown at Bibi lately — are generating more excitement these days. It remains to be seen whether the prime time appearance in Congress will change that. In Israel, the controversy around the visit may actually score points for Netanyahu, since more Israelis will be tuning in.

Bibi’s speech is the last major political event due to take place before the March 17 elections. According to the current polls, Netanyahu will still have more paths to 61 Knesset seats — the absolute majority needed to build a coalition — than leading opposition candidate, Isaac Herzog. Labor’s leader is failing to generate excitement or to move voters to the left. However, Bibi and his Likud party are usually underperforming in the elections, and the past few days have seen some of the undecided voters moving toward Yair Lapid’s party (just as they did in the previous elections). If Bibi fails to impress Israelis today, he will have serious reasons for concern when he returns.

UPDATE: A poll by the Knesset channel, which was published shortly after I posted this piece, has Labor leading Likud 24:21, and the left/center/Palestinian bloc with 56 seats – the same as Netanyahu’s Right/ultra-Orthodox bloc (the centrist “Kulanu” party headed by Moshe Kahlon has the remaining eight seats, and isn’t leaning toward any of the sides). More bad news for Bibi. 


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    1. Pedro X

      Netanyahu received a tremendous reception at AIPAC yesterday. Moreover, AIPAC members have been lobbying both Democratic and Republican Congressmen to support Netanyahu and oppose Obama’s deal with Iran which would allow Iran to maintain the capacity to produce a nuclear bomb and the capacity to deliver it to Tel Aviv.

      Iran has been a major concern of Netanyahu for more than a decade. He has been sounding a warning about Iran since 1996. For him to remain silent in the face of an existential threat to Israel is unimaginable.

      At the time of Purim we might remember that Mordechai alerted Esther to danger of extermination faced by the Jews from Haman and persuaded her not to remain silent but to speak to the King. Esther was initially reluctant to speak to the king because it could have had harmful repercussions to her and her family. Mordechai persuaded her not to remain silent. Esther saved the Jews from destruction by not remaining silent.

      Netanyahu appears in a modern role of Mordechai and Esther. He takes risks to save the nation state of Israel and by doing so annoys the man who thinks he is king of the world. Netanyahu asks Congress to listen to his message and take action before it is too late and Iran is allowed to continue with its nuclear bomb program and its program to develop the ability to deliver a nuclear bomb to Israel.

      Many Israeli prime ministers have taken steps which have risked souring relations with the Americans. Nevertheless they took action which they believed served essential Israeli interests. Begin and Olmert bombed nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria in opposition to American wishers. Eshkol struck Egypt and Syria in the 1967 war. Sharon defied George Bush and commenced Operation Defensive shield.

      However, Netanyahu seeks to persuade Congress by word to act so that military action is not needed to counter the threat of a nuclear armed Iran.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Mordechai and Esther eh? What a farce. You sound like that JPost Netanyahu flack Herb Keinon. Only problem is virtually the entire actual Israeli security establishment thinks the grandiose, hysterical Mordechai n Esther narrative is malarkey. I know you’ll find the exceptions and trot them out but the truth is the bulk of them think Netanyahu is a very poor top decision maker here. To understand why, read Aluf Benn in Haaretz about the speech Netanyahu should be giving.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      Just watched this speech and I have to say that the standing ovations he got were nothing short of breath-taking. In my opinion, many of the House Republicans may develop Carpel Tunnel Syndrome from all the clapping (some of them continued clapping at the end).

      Absolutely surreal display of Republican sycophancy to Netanyahu.

      Oh, and loved that ovation that fraudster Elie Wiesel got (sitting next to suspected child rapist Dershowitz).

      Did I say it was surreal?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Pedro X

      The prime minister was greeted with a roaring welcome as he walked down the center aisle of the House chamber. During his speech he received 25 standing ovations. The chamber was full to capacity. Like Churchill said to the French, Netanyahu said that Israel would stand alone if it had to. The French told Churchill that Germany would wring Britain’s neck like a chicken in three weeks. The French capitulated to Germany while England carried on the war. Hopefully Congress will not allow the United States to capitulate to Iran and allow it gain a clear path to a nuclear bomb and a delivery system to wring the necks of all Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        What utter nerve to compare Churchill with Netanyahu. They are alike only in their resistance to working-class solidarity to preserve and enhance aristocratic privilege, their economic mismanagement, their racism and contempt for Palestinians, and their support for the continuation of colonialism. But one was the proud, eloquent and charismatic symbol of national resistance to totalitarianism; the other a repeated dissembler, dissing the statesman of the world, paranoid and with a single-track mind, and an oppressor, an occupier and a war-monger, repeatedly accused of corruption, and with all the integrity and eloquence of a used-car salesman. Hopefully just as Churchill was unceremoniously ejected from power immediately after victory by a returning soldiery that had no desire to return to the hardships, insecurity and class divisions of the pre-war world, Netanyahu may get his comeuppance this month, but the chances don’t seem good since in Israel there is no new regime of talented and principled politicians equivalent to Attlee, Bevan, Bevin, Morrison, Wilson, Dalton, Wilkinson and Gaitskell.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Joel Cantor

      Most Israelis dislike and distrust Hussein Obama. The Congress speech will probably boost Bibi’s popularity.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Brian

      “I resent the condescending tone,” Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said during a lengthy press conference where House Democrats sounded off over the speech Tuesday afternoon.

      The tense press conference represented just a snapshot of the politically charged environment on Capitol Hill, even after the Israeli leader’s address.

      Yarmuth accused Netanyahu of “fear-mongering” and said: “Now he can go home.”

      Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., leveled the same accusation.

      “If you can make the people afraid, you can make them do anything,” he said. “That’s what Prime Minister Netanyahu was doing. He was trying to make people afraid.”

      Dozens of Democrats boycotted the speech in protest.

      Reply to Comment
    6. dekkers

      Speech was old news or better meaningless and full of the well known lies. Sickening and shameful to hear all the paid for applause.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Average American

      PedroX: So let Israel stand alone against Iran! Milekowsky said so! Let Israel spend the lives and limbs of their own sons and daughters. Let them use their own equipment and treasury. Let them receive their own consequences. And let them stay the hell out of our government.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      In the latest poll Yachad was on the threshold with 4 projected seats. I also read that coalition with “Jewish Power”, i.e. Kahanists Ben-Ari and Marzel, was very controversial in Yachad which is splinter of Shas. For some reasons, some sages of Shas support the splinter group but also detest the Kahanists. Perhaps the excesses of the Kahanist may convince some potential voters to follow Shas, and some ideological Kahanist voters may vote for Bennet whose party has a fraction that seems Kahanist. Although supporters of that fractions may love the excesses.

      This latest poll register relatively big increase for the “Left”, with United Arab, Meretz and Yesh Atid gaining, Kulanu holding, and Yachad on the brink. What I would like to see is Obama getting agreement with Iran (I must admit, it would be a pleasant surprise) and Netanyahu panned by his faulty strategy, and another shift of three seats toward the Left, and which point it would be almost impossible for Netanyahu to form a government.

      Reply to Comment