Netanyahu Speech to U.S. Congress: Preaching to the Choir

The prime minister's speech left him in the best position: the coalition is unified behind him, most of the public support his position in the polls, and his freedom of action is preserved. What more can a politician ask for?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left untarnished from his speech at the United States Congress. He promised nothing and nothing he said will complicate him politically. This is Netanyahu's favorite situation: the coalition is unified behind him, most of the public support his position in the polls, and his freedom of action is preserved. What more can a politician ask for?

The viewpoint that Netanyahu presented on Capitol Hill, like his speech at the Knesset last week, is designed to re-strengthen his position as the right-wing leader in Israel – pushing aside contender Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu wants to appear as someone who sticks to his opinions in the face of attacks, and doesn't fold under pressure from U.S. President Barak Obama.

"In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers," Netanyahu said to the sound of cheers from the senators and congress members. The Palestinians alone are to blame in perpetuating the conflict, due to their refusal to recognize a Jewish state, Netanyahu said. More applause.

At the same time, his talk of painful concessions, of a Palestinian state that would be "big enough", of the settlements that will remain outside of the borders of Israel, and of "creativity and good will" in Jerusalem are intended to show him as a pragmatist, differentiated from the extreme-right approach.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak will find a reason to remain in the government, and opposition head Tzipi Livni will have to move to the left with her positions if she wants to differentiate herself from Netanyahu. More importantly, if the international tension subdues Netanyahu and he decides to vacate settlements, the claim could be made that he did not deceive the voters, like Ariel Sharon did. Here, Netanyahu warns that not all the settlements will remain in Israel.

Officials from the prime minister's entourage stressed the distinction Netanyahu made between the size of the future Palestinian State, to which he will show generosity, and his resoluteness with regards to the placement of Israel's borders.

This is his version of Obama's mutually agreed land swaps, and even a wink at Lieberman's plan for populated territory exchanges – yet another means of creating future freedom of action in the event that Israel is pressured into pulling out of the West Bank.

The key paragraph in his speech was saved for the very end. Netanyahu promised that Israel will be the first country to recognize a Palestinian State – if and only if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will break his bond with Hamas and enter negotiations with the Jewish State.

This potion will not bring Abbas to the negotiating table, but it enjoys widespread support in Israel. But from the outside, which is the direction Netanyahu was aiming for, this message creates the appearance that Israel wants to talk.

Netanyahu is signaling to Obama and the European leaders that he wants a deal by September that will avoid unilateral international recognition of a Palestinian State.

It is only May, and there is enough time to work out such a diplomatic deal.

Netanyahu read his speech from a 42-size font stacked in front of him in a pile of papers. He was clearly energized, and he was ready and capable of extracting applause from his eager crowd.

More than any other Israeli politician, this is Netanyahu's turf. The prime minister did not take up the threatened victim's position, but rather laced his speech with plenty of jokes and puns, to show the members of congress that he was just one of the guys. He repeatedly hailed Obama, and thanked him for his support of Israel.

It is interesting that Netanyahu avoided mentioning previous leaders, and quoted only the Victorian author George Eliot.

At the end of his speech, Netanyahu declared that he was ready to negotiate even in Ramallah. That's nice of him, but he knows that on the Palestinian side no one is listening now, and the negotiations will not be renewed on the basis of the vague positions he displayed.

Abbas, who is now talking about the right of return, will not heed Netanyahu's call and exclaim: "I accept the Jewish State."

The Prime Minister was preaching to the believers, to the Israelis listening from home, and to his American supporters. His speech was the perfect example of the famous quote by former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil: "All politics is local."

In the meantime, on the ground, nothing much will change.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Nir Keidar