Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to US Congress on March 3, 2015, with US Speaker of the House John Boehner and President pro tempore of the US Senate Orrin Hatch applauding behind him.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Now what? After all the hype, all the concern, all the accusations, all the justifications, it’s over. The Speech has been delivered. Whether you think it was a good speech or a bad speech depends to no small degree on whether or not you like Benjamin Netanyahu.
Those who like him will say it was a great speech; those who don’t like him would say it was a flop even if he had delivered the 21st-century equivalent of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Yediot Aharonot is sure to mock the address as nothing new, Israel Hayom to heap praises on it. Fox News will love it, CNN will be cynical. House Speaker John Boehner will say it was important for Congress and the American people to hear from Netanyahu; Jewish Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein will ask who that guy from Jerusalem thinks he is, and what arrogance he must have to say he speaks in the name of the Jewish People.
And that was part of the built-in problem with this whole exercise.
The way the speech issue was handled turned the matter into being about Netanyahu, when it should – at this critical juncture – have been about Iran.
The focus over the last six weeks, since the speech was first announced, has been on Netanyahu and President Barack Obama and the deteriorating relations between the two, and not on Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, secret nuclear installations and centrifuges.
Despite all the eloquence Netanyahu mustered – and he mustered some – and despite his arguments against the deal (most of which have been heard numerous times in the past), will this single speech really be remembered as The Turning Point on Iran? Will Obama now pound palm on forehead and say, “Yes, now I get it”? Obviously not. But it is doubtful that was the intention. Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapon started almost three decades ago, as did the efforts to stop it. If ever there was a marathon, not a sprint, it is the Iranian nuclear program.
The Iranians’ failure to produce a nuclear weapon so far is not because they are less smart, efficient or capable than the Indians, Pakistanis and Israelis, all of whom reportedly have nuclear capabilities. The Iranians haven’t gotten there because things taking place on the ground have kept them from getting there over the years: computer worms, straw companies set up to sell the Iranians faulty material, the occasional assassination of nuclear engineers.
Netanyahu’s speech should be seen as part of that continuum, a small step to try and stall the march.
The one new element in the speech was his entreating Congress not to lift sanctions until Iran “acts like a normal country.”
And if it doesn’t work – as Netanyahu broadly hinted – Israel may use other steps: “As a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing – even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”
The endless hype and talk about the speech gave a certain Super Bowl feel to the event. The Super Bowl, that annual championship American football game, almost always falls short of the pre-game expectations.
For two weeks before the game, there is non-stop chatter about it, pre-analyzing every aspect. Then it is played, and usually (though not this year) it doesn’t live up to the billing.
So, too, the speech. Netanyahu came to Washington, delivered and left. He didn’t present any earth-shattering evidence or substantially new arguments. It is doubtful that anything dramatic will change. It is another incremental step in trying to stop the Iranian bomb; the speech’s impact on the US lawmakers, if there is any, will only be known later.
Just as the speech was not as dramatic as its pre-billing, its damage to US-Israeli relations will not be as permanent or substantial as many warn, and others fear.
At his speech to AIPAC on Monday, Netanyahu spoke about how the relationship between Israel and the US was like that of a family. His speech followed one delivered by US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who said the relationship was “bedrock-secure,” and National Security Adviser Susan Rice strongly seconding that sentiment during her speech to the conference.
Taking the family metaphor a step further, the speech was similar to parents urging their son to go into the family business when he wants to study Greek philosophy. The parents tell him how his decision is bad for himself and his future and will bring shame on the family. But nevertheless, the son goes ahead, deaf to his parents’ protestations.
So what do the parents do when he comes home after his first semester? Do they cut him off? Do they thrown him out of the house? Unlikely, especially when they professed their affection the day before he left for college.
Netanyahu, during his AIPAC speech, listed the other times when there were profound differences between Israel and the US: in 1948, in 1967, when Menachem Begin bombed the Iraqi reactor in 1981, and when Ariel Sharon bucked George W. Bush in 2002 and continued with Operation Defensive Shield. After each of those incidents, the US-Israel relationship only got stronger – and those incidents involved prime ministers actually taking action, not just delivering a speech.
Netanyahu’s speech came and went. The negotiations with Iran will continue. The US-Israel relationship will remain strong. The sun will come up tomorrow. The true questions and tests will arise when and if an Israeli prime minister ever finds his back to the wall and feels compelled to do more against Iran’s nuclear program than “just” address the US Congress.