Sounding the alarm.

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Netanyahu's Careful, Clever Speech to Congress

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, although full of bombast, was carefully constructed to avoid revealing new information about the nuclear negotiations with Iran or specifying what a better deal would look like.

Critics are pouncing on Netanyahu's lack of details: President Barack Obama said the Israeli leader offered no "viable alternatives" to the nuclear negotiations with Iran and "there was nothing new."

But that's exactly the way Bibi wanted it.

Netanyahu crafted a speech with his Washington ambassador, Ron Dermer, designed to make broad points, stir bipartisan cheers and avoid giving the Obama administration any more ammunition to attack him as partisan or irresponsible.

“Now we're being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That's just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal," he said.  

Taking in the pulse of the House chamber afterward showed the wisdom of this approach. “No surprises,” Democratic Senator Bill Nelson told me after the speech.

“I think the speech will add some reality and people will realize that we are talking about avoiding a potential genocide against the Jewish people,” added Republican Senator Mark Kirk. “If ‘never again’ means anything, the question is, are you going to get off your duff and make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

All Republicans and most Democrats repeatedly stood and applauded when Netanyahu warned about Iran’s regional expansion and support for terrorism, and lambasted the Iranian regime’s threats to Israel and America. Some Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority leaders Harry Reid and Richard Durbin, declined to clap or rise when Netanyahu called on Congress to do what it can to prevent a deal and avoid lifting sanctions.

In a private fund-raiser after the speech, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pointed to Pelosi’s behavior as evidence that a Republican majority is better for those who support Israel. “Did you see Nancy Pelosi on the floor. Complete disgust,” he said, according to one attendee. “If you can get through all the surgeries, there’s disgust.”

Officials traveling with Netanyahu told me that the prime minister’s goal in crafting the speech was not to change the minds of officials who support the negotiations, but to make sure that if a deal is signed, he is on record as trying to prevent it. He also wanted to avoid inflaming the political controversy over the speech in the U.S. or Israel.

“I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention,” he said. “I want to thank you, Democrats and Republicans, for your common support for Israel, year after year, decade after decade. I know that no matter on which side of the aisle you sit, you stand with Israel.”

After stern warnings from the White House this week about revealing details of the nuclear negotiations in Geneva, the only specifics Netanyahu referred to were that under the current proposal, Iran would be left with thousands of centrifuges and that the restrictions on Iran would expire after 10 years.

“It leaves Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and relies on inspectors to prevent a breakout. That concession creates a real danger that Iran could get to the bomb by violating the deal,” he said. “Now, a decade may seem like a long time in political life, but it's the blink of an eye in the life of a nation.”

Kirk told me that providing those details was acceptable, as all had been well reported and often sourced to Obama administration officials. “The administration leaks much more to the New York Times than they would ever tell the Congress,” he said.

Netanyahu didn’t advocate for any new U.S. sanctions against Iran, such as the ones contained in a bill crafted by Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose members are in Washington this week for their convention, is pushing for the Kirk-Menendez bill and different  legislation, by Menendez and Republican Bob Corker, that would mandate a Congressional review of any Iran deal. Netanyahu didn’t mention that either.

Rather, he urged Congress not to pare back sanctions on Iran after a nuclear deal is signed, because that would only enable the regime to ramp up its other nefarious activities.

“Before lifting those restrictions, the world should demand that Iran do three things," he said. "First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country.”

Those lines got loud applause across the House chamber, including from Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Menendez.

Overall, Netanyahu avoided making his controversial speech more controversial, demonstrated that most of Congress is on his side, and left town without giving his U.S. critics inside and outside the administration new ammunition. It was a speech devoid of real news, but that was the Israeli prime minister's plan.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net