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
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.