One thing we can bank on. If Benjamin Netanyahu continues to lead Israel after the March 17 election, we won’t have to be concerned with whether he’s ushered into the White House with a full statesman flourish or through the back service door. Following his speech to the joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday, he probably won’t be allowed within 10 miles of the White House until the end of Barack Obama’s term in January 2017.
In swooping down on Washington and lecturing the America’s lawmakers about how their president is negotiating with the devil, the word “Netanyahu” has turned into the Jeopardy answer to the question: What is “Israeli chutzpah?” Of course, that perfected-over-decades attribute has been an essential element of Israel’s ability to flourish, and it’s a required quality to survive in this rough part of the world. Still, Netanyahu’s audacious condemnation of the deal that is shaping up between the US and Iran and the manner in which he lectured the US lawmakers raised the level of how far he’s willing to go to make his point.
After paying lip service to Obama at the outset of the speech for being a great friend of Israel, Netanyahu proceeded to demolish his policies toward Iran, while skillfully managing never to mention his name again. The stacked audience of Republican stalwarts (thanks to the woefully misguided boycott that left dozens of Democrats at home) treated Netanyahu as if he were the newly crowned 2016 Republican presidential nominee.
Despite Netanyahu’s claims that he never intended to turn his speech into a partisan issue, there was no way to avoid it. As espoused by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, who said she was close to tears of embarrassment over her perception of Netanyahu’s “arrogance,” the prime minister had no right to denounce the US president on his home court.
What it all comes down to is an issue of trust – and Netanyahu, for right or wrong, has severe trust issues with Obama and his emissary John Kerry. This, despite both of them having stated unequivocally in countless forums that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and repeated the mantra that no agreement was better than a “bad” agreement.
By sauntering into Washington and touting himself as the last bulwark standing against the deal, Netanyahu’s take-away message was that he does not trust Obama and Kerry’s definition of a bad deal.
Is it any wonder that so many Americans – Jewish Democrats especially – considered the speech, and the lead-up to it, highly offensive? Then again, should we care if the administration and our Democrat friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish, consider Bibi’s behavior insulting toward Obama and unbefitting of a close ally? Isn’t the Iranian threat more important than honor, more far-reaching than the longstanding nonpartisan foundation on which the US-Israel relationship has been built? If you’re Netanyahu, then the answers are “maybe” and “most definitely yes.” As Bibi critics were gleefully pointing out after the speech, Netanyahu has been touting the Iranian threat since 1996, stressing the urgency even then. So, he can safely say it’s not an issue he has with Obama, it’s an issue he has with Iran.
What the commentators failed to mention was that it was probably because of that obsession, which has increased over the years, that the world was forced to stand up and take notice and eventually impose sanctions on Iran.
This week’s speech, the one that Netanyahu said he felt compelled to make, probably won’t make a difference in torpedoing the deal. The negotiations might fall apart on their own, with indications from both the US and Iran that agreement is not a foregone conclusion.
What the speech will do, though, is likely sew up the ballot box for the Likud back home. Bibi reiterated that his trip, two weeks before the election, was not political. But with the adulation and dozens of standing ovations that US political satirist Jon Stewart described in graphic detail, the presidential-looking Netanyahu presented the stately, tough guy image that will provide the tipping point for the undecided voters on the Right and in the Center.
Even Netanyahu’s detractors should be able to concede that there’s something transcendent in seeing a prime minister of Israel standing before the most powerful people in the US, recounting the Purim story, quoting from Moses and espousing Jewish pride – and receiving ovation after ovation.
It should have left a pride-producing warm and fuzzy feeling, and it did. But ultimately, I was left dejected and sad – but not to the extent that I needed to borrow Nancy Pelosi’s Kleenex.
If Netanyahu’s assessment of the impending deal is correct, and it is signed, then we’re in for a turbulent decade with a nuclear Iran creeping up and after the agreement expires, it’ll be unencumbered to finish the job. We, and the rest of the world, will be much worse off.
If he’s wrong, and either the deal never materializes, leading to renewed sanctions and Iran returning to pariah status, or the deal somehow turns out to be “good” and curbs Tehran’s nuclear program, then what does it mean for the US-Israel relationship? Was the battle over Iran an uncomfortable blip in the rock-solid ties between Israel and the US? “Let’s forget about how you went over my head to Congress and the American people,” Obama will tell Bibi as they light up stogies in the Oval Office and make fun of John Boehner.
Don’t count on it. While the bilateral security and diplomatic cooperation will continue business as usual, at the top it’s all over if Netanyahu is reelected. He was willing to sever whatever was left of his relationship with Obama to get his point across about Iran.
That means a very rocky year and half until Obama leaves office, but Netanyahu has played his hand. His gamble is that, despite his opponents focusing on the socioeconomic issues that have not improved during his tenure, the public is ultimately going to vote once again according to their security needs.
The ace up his sleeve which raised the stakes was his speech in Washington. And barring a monumental change in the next 10 days, it may be the hand that causes Herzog and Livni to fold.
The results of his trip to Washington? Bibi may have saved the world from Iranian nuclear weapons and in the process, secured his reelection. Or... it won’t have any impact on the deal with Iran, it has certainly erased whatever was left of the US tolerance for him, and it will still get him reelected.
Either way, Netanyahu wins. But does Israel?