Netanyahu's Congress Speech: Will It Change His Relationship With Obama or Ruin It Forever?

The speech, whose purpose is to curb international pressure on Israel, gives Netanyahu a rare opportunity to reboot his leadership.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech Tuesday before the U.S. Congress will be the formative event of his term, if not his entire political career. A statement released by his bureau promises that the speech will "garner major international attention," alluding to a surprise.

The speech, whose purpose is to curb international pressure on Israel, gives Netanyahu a rare opportunity to reboot his leadership. Just a few months ago, he appeared to be directionless. Now, people are hanging on his every word.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington May 23, 2011.Credit: Reuters

Netanyahu has taken advantage of the opportunity to veer to the right to unify his coalition and marginalize opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni (Kadima ). Instead of praising U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East policy statement of last Thursday, Netanyahu attacked it. The maneuver worked, at least for the meantime. Both right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and left-leaning Defense Minister Ehud Barak have crowded into Netanyahu's tent.

Livni spoke archaically and vaguely, not daring to give the simple, clear message: "Say yes to Obama."

Netanyahu continued in Washington the resolute position he presented to the Knesset last week. To his mind, the Palestinians want to destroy Israel, do not accept its right to exist and want to flood it with millions of refugees. Israel's supporters, Obama among them, mean well but are not sufficiently aware of the dangers. Netanyahu believes there is no point to offering verbal concessions, such as agreement to the 1967 lines, because the Palestinians will just make new demands.

Netanyahu believes the strong stand he took with Obama in their meeting Friday softened up the president's position. Obama's speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Sunday was more convenient for Netanyahu. Obama corrected, as the Jewish organizations requested, three points in his remarks: He clarified that there would be no talks with Hamas until it recognizes Israel and his position on the 1967 lines with agreed-on border corrections, and he negated the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. He responded to the first two points, and ignored the refugees.

Now it is Netanyahu's turn to soften up. He will try to package his Knesset speech in wrapping that looks better in the United States and Europe.

Netanyahu has filled the days before his speech with public relations: a photo-op fitness walk in the park with his wife Sara; another photo-op with his advisers seated around a table; repeated statements about the decreasing disagreements with the White House.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara on stroll in Washington DC, May 23, 2011.Credit: GPO

In a statement released to the press yesterday, Netanyahu noted that few international leaders had enjoyed the privilege of appearing before the two houses of Congress, among them Winston Churchill.

Churchill, who spoke to Congress in 1941, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, could not stand each other and were deeply divided over colonialism. But they still cooperated in the war against Hitler. Netanyahu wants the same model: strategic cooperation with the United States in light of the great changes in the Middle East, and despite Obama's and Netanyahu's mutual abhorrence and deep disagreement over the occupation and the settlements, which Obama views as European colonialism.

The last such round ended with victory over Hitler and the dismantling of the British Empire. Today's speech will either start the shared road of Obama and Netanyahu toward understanding, or cause an irreparable clash.



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