Obama Switches Tactics Against Netanyahu’s Speech: Instead of Anger, Disdain

The PM describes his address to Congress as crucial, but Susan Rice seems to think it’s just sound bites.

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President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at a reception celebrating African American History Month in the East Room of the White House in Washington, February 26, 2015.Credit: Reuters

On the eve of Benjamin Netanyahu’s fateful address to the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration abruptly changed its tactics. Instead of fighting the prime minister tooth and nail, administration officials sidelined his objections; rather than portray his address to American lawmakers on Tuesday morning in apocalyptic terms such as "destructive," President Obama dismissed them as mere "commentary."

The new tack may stem from a realization that the harsh campaign waged in recent weeks by the administration against Netanyahu’s speech is one of the main reasons it has turned into the biggest show in Washington. “The tickets are hotter than fresh latkes,” as Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer told the New York Times on Monday. 

By the same token, however, the Prime Minister’s Office may also be having second thoughts about its response to the administration’s onslaught, which was to pump up the significance of the speech even further and to describe it as crucial, monumental and historic. By now Netanyahu’s aides might be worried that even such a skilled orator as Netanyahu will find it difficult to scale the mountain of expectations that they have created.

In his warm up act at AIPAC on Monday, Netanyahu was enthusiastically received by an ebullient crowd but he refrained from divulging any of the new details about the Iran accord that his aides had promised on the way over from Israel to Washington. That pledge, in fact, had already marred a day in which both sides seemed to be trying to reduce tensions between Obama and Netanyahu: the White House snarled that the disclosure of such sensitive information would constitute a “betrayal of trust” by the prime minister.

By evening however, National Security Adviser Susan Rice appeared to be indirectly pooh-poohing Netanyahu’s objections to the Iran accord as nothing more than “sound bites.” In a well-written speech that both delighted and infuriated the AIPAC delegates, Rice waxed lyrical, in English and Hebrew, about her own love and the administration’s support for Israel, but then made clear that she viewed the lobby’s positions – and, presumably, those to be presented today to Congress by Netanyahu – as unachievable and unrealistic.

“I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forego its domestic enrichment capacity entirely. But, as desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable,” Rice said, referring to the “marching orders” given by AIPAC leadership to its activists as they head out today to lobby Congress in favor of imposing more sanctions on Iran and of enhancing Congressional supervision over the talks with Tehran.

Rice also made clear what the consequences would be if Netanyahu and the lobby had their way: “So here’s what’s likely to happen without a deal. Iran will install and operate advanced centrifuges. Iran will seek to fuel its reactor in Arak. Iran will rebuild its uranium stockpile. And, we'll lose the unprecedented inspections and transparency we have today. Sound bites won’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Strong diplomacy – backed by pressure – can.”

The same message was conveyed by Obama, in a televised interview with Reuters conducted a few hours before Rice spoke. Preempting Netanyahu’s expected push for additional sanctions, Obama said dismissively “there’s no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program.”

Obama also recalled Netanyahu’s objections to the interim Joint Plan of Action signed with Iran “When we first announced this interim deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu made all sorts of claims. This was going to be a terrible deal. This was going to result in Iran getting 50 billion dollars worth of relief. Iran would not abide by the agreement. None of that has come true.”

Obama went on to describe Netanyahu’s speech to Congress as a “distraction” adding: “I'm less concerned, frankly, with Prime Minister Netanyahu's commentary than I am with Congress taking actions that might undermine the talks before they're complete.”

It’s not clear whether the administration’s new tone should be described as "softer," but in any case it did not prevent some leading Democratic lawmakers to announce last night that they would not be attending Netanyahu’s speech. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, probably the most prominent “boycotter” to date, said she would be joining about 60 Democratic members of Congress who intend to refrain from coming to hear Netanyahu. Warren’s decision, along with that of Minnesota Senator Al Franken, symbolizes the degree of resentment in the leftist flank of the Democratic Party against both House Speaker John Boehner, who invited Netanyahu, and the prime minister himself, who accepted.