Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a speech at the Western Wall, February 28, 2015.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would undoubtedly have preferred to give his speech to the US Congress on March 16, the day before the elections, rather than a whole two weeks before, but that would have been too transparent.
His speech was genuine, and its main purpose was not to woo Israeli voters, but to persuade American legislators and the international community as a whole of the dangers of a bad deal with Iran. Anyone who doubts that can look back at 20 years of Netanyahu’s obsessive work on the issue, going back to his speech in Congress in 1996.
In that address, he mentioned Iran just once, not 107 times, but he was already warning then that “the deadline for attaining this goal [preventing Iran’s nuclearization] is getting extremely close.”
Nevertheless, the speech cannot be detached from the election. Delivering the address and getting so many standing ovations relays a message to Israelis that they need him to protect them on the world stage.
Netanyahu’s ability to get the entire world to listen to him, whether they like what he has to say or not, persuades Israelis that they have a prime minister who is in a league of his own. It gives an impression that Israel has a leader on the level of US President Barack Obama, if not former British prime minister Winston Churchill, with all due respect to Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog and the party chairmen competing with Netanyahu for votes on the Right.
Polls have repeatedly proven that fighting with Obama helps Netanyahu politically. The sharp criticism he received after the speech from Obama, Democratic representatives Nancy Pelosi and Jan Schakowsky, and national security adviser Susan Rice played into Netanyahu’s hands.
During an election where the main reservoir of undecided votes is on the Right, which resents such condemnations from American leftists, Pelosi saying Netanyahu made her cry may have been just enough to put him over the top. If he ends up forming a right-wing coalition, Pelosi and her dovish allies will have all the more reason to cry.
The speech came at a critical time, when the latest Panels Research poll before the address showed the Likud falling three seats behind the Zionist Union. But the address might actually have come too soon.
Netanyahu said in the speech that a decade “seems like a long time in political life.” In Israeli political life, two weeks is an eternity.
It is no wonder that his strategists said the key to his speeches in Washington was creating momentum.
The first polls taken after the speech will be watched closely to see how much the address to Congress helped the Likud and whether Herzog’s immediate criticism backfired. There are not too many polls left, because during the final five days before an election, publishing election surveys in Israeli media is forbidden by law.
Whether Netanyahu can keep Congress and Iran on the agenda for another two weeks may determine whether he will remain prime minister after the next government is formed.