The speech Netanyahu should give Congress

With Iranian soldiers literally on Israel’s borders, and the Iranian regime closer than ever to a nuclear weapon, there has never been a more important time to make Israel’s case.

Netanyahu speaks during a cornerstone laying ceremony in Sderot. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu speaks during a cornerstone laying ceremony in Sderot.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The speech that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver to a special joint session of the US Congress in March will be the most important address by an Israeli leader in the history of the Jewish state.
With Iranian soldiers literally on Israel’s borders, and the Iranian regime closer than ever to a nuclear weapon, plus the renewed danger of Islamist terror at home and abroad, there has never been a more important time to make Israel’s case – wherever it can be heard.
Much ink has been spilled over the controversial circumstances in which Netanyahu was invited. Those who fault Netanyahu for accepting Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation tend to overlook the extent to which President Barack Obama has deliberately undermined relations both with Congress and with Israel.
Far better for Netanyahu to have this opportunity to plead Israel’s case now, before war with Iran, than to follow the Ukrainian president in beseeching Congress to send help after his country has already lost.
Regardless, there is no sense in canceling the speech now. Such indecision by Netanyahu on the world stage would have real geopolitical consequences.
Instead, the focus must shift to what Netanyahu should say.
As a veteran speechwriter, having written addresses for political leaders on two continents, I have learned that the most important factor in the success of a speech is not what is said, but how the media report what is said.
And the mainstream American media have already prepared their narrative: they will judge Netanyahu on how his words reflect on Obama, not on what he says about Iran or radical Islam.
So it will be important, at the start of the speech, for Netanyahu to apologize for any offense that his appearance may have caused Obama. In doing so, the prime minister should indicate that he has no wish to become embroiled in American politics, nor to use his appearance to boost his own re-election prospects.
Only once Netanyahu has cut through the political tension surrounding his relationship with Obama will he be able to tackle the real goal of the speech.
Netanyahu’s purpose is simple, but extremely challenging: He must make the case for preparing for war with Iran as a last resort, while also disavowing any effort to urge the United States to go to war.
It is the same task that president Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced in the 1930s, as he became convinced that America would have to confront the Axis powers, but could not say so explicitly, lest he face the furious opposition of isolationists on both sides of the political aisle.
And so Roosevelt slowly built the political foundation for American intervention abroad, first with the “quarantine” speech in 1937, then in several other addresses over the next several years.
By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the attack was a surprise but the response was one for which Americans had been well prepared by their president – morally, if not yet militarily.
That task today falls to Netanyahu because unlike president Roosevelt, who was slowly steeling his nation for an inevitable war, Obama has been preparing Americans for an illusory peace.
And no one in the Republican Party dare make the case explicitly – not since Sen. John McCain joked about bombing Iran on the campaign trail in 2007.
The difficulties of the Iraq War, rightly or wrongly, eroded Americans’ trust in further interventionist efforts, as did the Benghazi debacle in 2012.
That is why Boehner tapped Netanyahu to explain “the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” Netanyahu is the only leader, foreign or domestic, trusted by most Americans on questions of foreign policy and national security.
That may surprise Netanyahu’s many Israeli critics and rivals. But it is a trust that has been established over many decades, as Netanyahu has made Israel’s case before the American people in a familiar accent and idiom.
Netanyahu must turn the “military option” from a cheap line in Obama’s campaign speeches into a serious policy alternative. He must do so because fear of war has made America’s negotiating posture terribly weak. The fear has worsened beyond a reasonable desire to avoid war, and has become an irrational belief that any American military effort is doomed.
The paradox is that fear of war is making war more likely by encouraging Iran to demand concessions its rivals cannot accept and still survive.
If he tries to make the case for war directly, Netanyahu will fail. But what he can and must do is point out the extent to which Iran, and Islamic terrorists, are at war with America already. He can and must remind Congress that Iran has planned terror attacks against Americans – and on Obama’s watch. And he can and must explain that while Iran is Shi’ite and Islamic State is Sunni, both target Americans and both are exploiting the absence of American leadership.
Most important of all, Netanyahu should remind Congress that Iran has violated the interim deal under which it has been negotiating with the US and other world powers.
As proof, Netanyahu can present the Obama administration’s own recent complaint to the UN over Iran’s efforts to purchase components for its nuclear reactor at Arak. It would not hurt to bring props – not charts at the podium, but dossiers detailing Iran’s many violations, placed upon each member’s seat.
As for sanctions – the issue at the heart of the crisis between Congress and the White House – it would be unwise for Netanyahu to take a specific position.
Rather, he should thank Congress for the sanctions it has passed thus far, and reiterate that Iran will only agree to a nuclear deal that the world can accept if the regime is convinced the alternative to negotiations is worse – and that the only way to convince Iran of that is through credible threats of punishment if talks fail.
Netanyahu has one very important advantage, which is that the American people are less afraid of conflict than their politicians. (The success of the recent film American Sniper is some evidence of that.) But Netanyahu will need to win over, or at least neutralize, the anti-war caucus. To do that, he must stress that he does not want war, and that the only way war can be avoided – if it can still be avoided – is to stop rewarding Iran’s aggression with new concessions.
As a speechwriter, it is important to know who the audience is. And while Netanyahu’s speech will be watched closely by Israelis back home, as well as by the Iranian ayatollahs and the diplomats of Brussels and Turtle Bay, the most important audience is the American people.
We have been told by our president that those who want a tougher line on Iran want to repeat the nightmare of Iraq (or, as he told Democrats privately, are obeying their political contributors).
It falls to Netanyahu to restore America’s alliance with Israel by restoring Americans’ faith in themselves – to leave us with a strong impression that will transcend Obama’s lame-duck presidency and prepare us for the difficulties that may await in the years ahead.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.