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Netanyahu Speech Plays as Campaign Ad

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hadn't exited the U.S. House chamber Tuesday when the Israeli press began its analysis of his talk. Across the political spectrum, there was consensus that Netanyahu is an excellent speaker (a long recognized attribute) and that he crafted an excellent speech. Even Zahava Gal-On (the leader of the very-left-leaning social-democratic party), acknowledged that the prime minster has performed admirably.

Yet Shelly Yachimovich, former head of the Labor Party and still a high-ranking member, said that Isaac Herzog, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister, would have done just as well and in English no less mellifluous. By bringing up Herzog immediately, she raised one of Israelis’ main objections to the speech. With elections scheduled for March 17, many saw Netanyahu’s standing in front of Congress to successive standing ovations as a transparent political ploy. In what is perhaps a cruel coincidence for Netanyahu, Tuesday was also the evening (always two weeks before elections) when Israel began airing TV campaign videos. The prime minister’s speech thus struck many as a more opulently staged political message.

YNet’s cover story about the speech began with the words, “with just two weeks left until elections.” When Herzog responded to Netanyahu from a small town not far from Gaza (a locale not chosen accidentally), his speech was so blatantly political that Channel 2 cut him off midsentence and switched to another interview elsewhere. Amnon Avromovich, a Channel 2 commentator, speaking with clips of Netanyahu receiving successive standing ovations running in the background, noted that in Israel’s pre-election season, Netanyahu needed that boost. “There is not a single audience in Israel that would greet the prime minister that enthusiastically.” And, he noted, the speech would influence only two groups: Netanyahu's supporters in the U.S. and Israeli voters. No member of Congress learned a single thing from the prime minister, he said, and Netanyahu had not changed a single vote in that chamber. “It’s all politics” was the consistent theme.

Several commentators pointed to what they saw as internal contradictions in Netanyahu’s remarks. One said that Netanyahu couldn't both point to the Iranian regime’s survival over 30 years and then suggest that sanctions could get it to change. There was a sense that Netanyahu needs to decide whether the Iranian regime is weak or strong, and the same with Israel: Does it need American protection or will it bomb Iran on its own? One commentator said Netanyahu claimed that Israelis were both desperately weak or muscled punks, using the Hebrew street slang “jabar.” Yet another noted that if Israel had the capacity to bomb Iran, it probably would have done so long ago. It was an idle threat, Roni Daniel, another Channel 2 figure said, and the standing ovations notwithstanding, every member of Congress knew it.

Israelis, who think about the Iranian threat much more consistently than do most Americans, also noted that Netanyahu had suggested no realistic alternative to the deal now forming. Yachimovich asked again, “What is the alternative to this bad deal? If that is all Iran will sign, and there is no deal, then they can continue to move steadily forward.” Haaretz voiced a similar objection, saying that the looming deal was actually good for Israel, just bad for Netanyahu. “What does he want?” Gal-On also asked. “For Iran to turn into Switzerland?” Both Gal-On and Herzog noted that if there is any issue on which there is wall-to-wall consensus in Israel, it is that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon. So if Netanyahu had nothing to offer, why did he give the speech now, causing possibly long-term damage to the American-Israeli relationship?

That damage was the final major theme. Although most Israelis dislike Obama rather intently, they are not naïve about the power he wields for another year and a half. The Times of Israel ran a story claiming that Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said the relationship damage Netanyahu caused could last well into 2016. It also ran a column by its editor in chief, David Horovitz, who said Netanyahu “caused devastating, presumably irrevocable damage to his relationship with President Barack Obama” when he decided to address Congress.

Even before the speech, YNet warned that Netanyahu's going to Washington in defiance of Obama’s wishes was going to hit Israelis in their pockets as the U.S. pulled back on military support, high-tech cooperation and more. Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. and now a candidate for the Knesset on a Likud-breakaway ticket, criticized the prime minister. “If all the information he shared is available on Google,” he said, the prime minister did not teach Congress anything it didn’t already know, and he should have given the speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's conference.

The looming question is whether Netanyahu’s undeniably admirable performance will have any effect on the disposition of the Israeli electorate. One expert pointed out that any shift generally shows up in polls about two weeks after an event. And two weeks from now, he noted with a smile, is when Israelis head to the polls.

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:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net