Why Bibi Let It Ride in Washington
It’s too early to say whether Netanyahu’s bravado bought him votes in the Israeli election or time on the Iran deal. But if his speech pays off, it’s gonna pay off big.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bravura performance Tuesday in Congress recalls the comment that U.S. President Bill Clinton made to his staff following his first meeting with the Israeli leader in July 1996. “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” an exasperated and frustrated Clinton exploded. The Netanyahu we saw March 3 in Congress was equally self-confident, self-assured, even grandiose, and convinced of both the rightness and importance of his cause.
There’s little doubt that the Israeli prime minister dominated this arena, for the better part of an hour. Close your eyes, substitute the loudest Republican applause and cheers for Democratic ones, and you might have imagined U.S. President Barack Obama addressing not a joint meeting of Congress but a joint session. Sure Vice President Joe Biden was absent along with a goodly number of Democrats. Still, Netanyahu’s powerful delivery of his speech in that deep baritone voice and with flawless English (tinged with that hint of Philly patois picked up during Netanyahu’s years in Cheltenham) was impressive. Laugh all you want at the exaggeration and the colloquial alliterative formulations — “Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon” — but there’s little doubt he struck a responsive chord among senators and representatives alike who mistrust Iran and are worried about its expansionist designs in the region. There is little political space for Iran on Capitol Hill. And Netanyahu exploited and capitalized on those suspicions and concerns.
But did the speech achieve its objectives? For Netanyahu there were two: energize Congress to oppose, delay, and perhaps muck up implementation of any Iran deal; and dominate the stage both at home and abroad as a tough, bold world leader two weeks before Israeli elections. And was any conceivable return worth the broken crockery — the partisan stresses on what has traditionally been a bipartisan relationship between the United States and Israel, and the deepening rift with the administration that Netanyahu’s speech could only deepen?
It’s a bit too early to judge whether Netanyahu’s succeed or failed. That of course will become clearer in the weeks to come as two key events unfold — Israeli elections on March 17 and the putative deadline for some sort of framework agreement between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue. So, what can we say now about Bibi’s moment?
Let’s consider the real impact this speech will have on the nuclear negotiations. The politics of an Iran deal are in many ways as consequential as the deal itself. But in this case there’s little chance that what was said in Washington will have much of an impact on events in Geneva. Indeed, Netanyahu’s intense and single-minded opposition to a deal may even make the Iranians more amenable to signing one — because the louder the Israeli protests, the easier it will be for Teheran to rationalize and sell an agreement. As in, if it’s that bad for Israel, then it must be better for Iran.
Netanyahu’s speech and the president’s personal reaction — I’m not watching, and there’s nothing new anyway — also suggest that a willful president has become even more determined when it comes to seeing through a deal with Iran. And he hasn’t even been leading the negotiations. Negotiators fall in love with their handiwork. And Secretary of State John Kerry too will double down now — first, because he believes in this deal and, second, because he wants to get into the Secretary of State Hall of Fame.
In the end, whether or not the deal succeeds will be based on the substance. And in that context, the pertinent question is this: Has a balance of interests been struck between the United States and Iran that allows both parties enough room not only to convince themselves that they’ve both won, but to convince their respective constituencies and the world too?
Even if we don’t know the answer to that question now, we can say with some certainty that in that regard Netanyahu’s speech probably won’t make much of a difference. Imagine Netanyahu’s speech and the U.S.-Iran talks as two non-intersecting parallel lines that, more likely than not, will never meet.
But could they? Netanyahu had two primary audiences in mind for his speech. The first was Congress. The prime minister is far too sober and smart to assume that his Washington performance would sway the administration or influence the negotiations. Indeed, he came to Washington not just because he thinks the deal in question is bad, but because he believes it is imminent. The only recourse he has to delay and complicate a putative agreement is Congress. And the speech was designed not only to buck up and backstop Republican opposition to an agreement, but to see whether he couldn’t raise doubts in the minds of enough Democrats to reinforce and complicate at least its implementation. Last week Sen. Bob Corker and Sen. Bob Menendez introduced the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, and Sen. Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday that the Senate would begin debate on the bill next week. The legislation would give Congress 60 days to review the deal, and during this period, the president would be prohibited from suspending sanctions.
Because it proposes a review of the agreement and steers clear of additional sanctions, it might well be more acceptable to Democrats. The problem, of course, for the prime minister is that while bucking up the Republicans and perhaps interjecting doubts in the minds of some Democrats, his intrusion into U.S. politics and implicit attack on the U.S. president may have turned off potential supporters. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has proposed waiting to debate the bill until the results of the negotiations become clearer. And Menendez is unhappy because McConnell rushed it the floor. Congressional dysfunction might doom its chances. And in any event, the White House has already threatened to veto the legislation as well as any others that propose new sanctions. Whether there are enough votes to override a veto is just not clear now.
Setting aside the risk Bibi took, it’s worth considering whether this could really have been an act of conviction and not just campaign politics. Second-guessing him in this way has become the reflexive response. Netanyahu’s motives are always questioned. He may well be the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. He just can’t seem to “get no respect.” His critics assume he doesn’t have conviction, only calculating politics. There’s little doubt that on many issues that shoe fits. You don’t get three turns as prime minister without political smarts, expediency, and triangulation. But at the same time — and this is where the conviction part comes into play — Iran is different. It cuts to the core of Netanyahu’s worldview and is bound up with his sense of mission. In his two previous appearances before Congress, he stressed the danger from Iran and has been beating the drum on the mullah’s evils since the 1980s. His use of Holocaust and World War II imagery, something other prime ministers like Yitzhak Rabin would rarely employ, is part of his DNA. Indeed, his mission isn’t to become the architect of Palestinian statehood; it’s to lead Israel, and the Jewish people too, out of the shadow of Islamic extremism and the Iranian bomb. He argued in his speech that “the greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.” Indeed, in one of my first conversations with him, in 1990, and in my last, in 2010, this was his main message.
That conviction and politics seamlessly mix at this moment is hardly a shocker. Two weeks before an election that by all accounts will be close, there’s no better role to play than one in defense of Israel’s interests against Iran and a Middle East that’s melting down. That the prime minister had a chance to play his Churchillian role while his chief rival, Isaac Herzog, has been pushed off center stage certainly won’t hurt him. And though a crisis with Israel’s closest ally is never good for an Israeli prime minister, Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton, or even George W. Bush, as far as most Israelis are concerned. A majority of Israelis think Obama is wrong on both Iranian and Palestinian issues. Before Netanyahu’s visit, a full 54 percent of Israelis polled were critical of his decision to speak to Congress. And in the aftermath, Israeli commentators both praised and blasted him. It’s impossible to predict, with so many undecided voters, how the speech will play in the elections.
But one thing is certain. If Netanyahu puts together the next Israeli government and surpasses David Ben-Gurion as the longest-governing prime minister in Israel’s history, he’ll be hailed as a political genius for coming to Washington. If he doesn’t, he’ll be the goat, and the Washington visit will be judged as his final and cruelest political blunder. I can’t wait to see which way Fortuna leans.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images