Netanyahu's new campaign pitch: 'I can move US public opinion' – analysis

The prime minister has been singing that tune to conferences around the country – and around the world – for years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting, December 2019. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting, December 2019.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There was very little new or different in the first two-thirds of a longer-than-usual 37-minute speech Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered on Sunday to the Makor Rishon Economic Conference in Jerusalem.
He started by saying, predictably, that he wanted a unity government, and laying the blame for the failure to achieve one squarely on the shoulders of his political rivals: Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Liberman. That was the political component of his speech.
Then he quickly moved into his achievements, and – as he has done so often in the past – he showed slides showing Israel’s impressive economic gains over the last decade. He repeated for the umpteenth time his doctrine that a free, deregulated economy is necessary to release the creative energies innate in the Israeli people. A strong economy, his doctrine goes, is a prerequisite for a strong military and intelligence apparatus, which is a key in building alliances that are necessary to thrive in this world.
The prime minister has been singing that tune to conferences around the country – and around the world – for years.
Sunday’s speech also rehashed his much-repeated argument since the eve of the September 17 election that he should remain prime minister because he could both negotiate a security pact with the US and get the Trump administration to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.
But then, at the 25th minute, Netanyahu introduced a new motif that was as much a campaign pitch as a glimpse into how he views the way the world works.
“Keep me in power,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, though not in those exact words, “because only I can effectively mobilize US public opinion on behalf of Israel’s vital interests.”
After relating how he was willing to confront world leaders over Iran – including bucking the wishes of then-US president Barack Obama and giving a speech to Congress against the Iranian nuclear deal – and after reminding his right-wing audience that he deflected intense pressure from US administrations to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, he revealed his recipe to withstanding the pressure.
“You have to fight wisely, but that is not enough,” he said. “You need to have the ability to influence the most important power in the United States. And what is the most important power? First of all, the most important power in the world is the United States, and the most important power in the US is public opinion. Public opinion impacts the positions of Congress, which represents public opinion. And the Congress – obviously – can be a counterbalance to negative trends elsewhere, including from the White House itself.”
Over dozens of years, he said, “I have appeared there [in the media] hundreds of times.” And, he argued, the accumulated exposure has made a difference.
“The US public knows me, and therefore I turned to it – time after time – about our rights, the justice of our cause, our homeland, our struggle. And when you are able to move significant public opinion in the United States, you can move the United States entirely. And if you can’t move public opinion, you can’t really lead the State of Israel. And that is the difference.”
The unstated message is that this is the difference between him and Gantz, whom the US public does not know, and who cannot hold a candle to Netanyahu’s ability to clearly and in unaccented English articulate Israel’s positions in language that they will listen to and understand.
But Netanyahu went even a step further, and said that this is also a major difference between him and Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Without being able to impact public opinion, “you can lead, you can do great things, but you cannot prevent international pressure.”
Netanyahu said Ben-Gurion was a giant leader, one for whom he has come to respect even more over time. But after Israel captured the Sinai Desert during Operation Kadesh in 1956, Netanyahu said, both US president Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum for Israel to withdraw.
“He left within a number of days,” Netanyahu said. “Because he did not have the ability to influence public opinion. A great leader like David Ben-Gurion could not prevent pressure to get him to leave Sinai.”
Fast forward to earlier this year, Netanyahu said, when representatives of the US, Russia and Israel met in Jerusalem and agreed not that Israel should leave a neighboring state, but that Iran should do so – a reference to the trilateral meeting of national security advisers this summer calling for Iran to leave Syria.
And that, he said, is the result of being able to move public opinion.
Ironically, Netanyahu’s speech came two days after he faced a setback in Congress when the House – a body that in his own words reflects US public opinion – voted along partisan lines in favor of a resolution that endorsed a two-state solution, came out against “unilateral annexation of territory,” and was widely seen as a Democratic rebuke of Netanyahu’s policies.