Think Netanyahu's Speech Is Really About Iran? Think Again

As prime minister, dealing with the specter of a nuclear Iran is one of Benjamin Netanyahu's primary responsibilities. He's shirking it.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

As prime minister, dealing with the specter of a nuclear Iran is one of Benjamin Netanyahu's primary responsibilities.

He's shirking it.

His stated goal is to mobilize Congress to foil what he predicted would be a bad deal between the great powers and Tehran. But the consequence of bitter feuding with the Obama White House has been a dramatic loss of critical support for the prime minister's position among House and Senate Democrats, by any standard the key to overriding presidential vetoes on crucial Iran-oriented legislation.

In fact, indications are that Tehran is nothing but pleased by the fracas over the address and the rift between Israel's leader and the White House.

"Netanyahu's comments at the U.S. Congress," Hamid Aboutalebi, a senior policy advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday "will further widen the existing gaps [between Israel and its supporters] in different arenas, and finally will benefit Iran."

Is the speech, as Netanyahu insists, truly and solely about an Iranian atomic bomb? Or has a different threat come to take precedence as the real reason for the address - the prospect of losing an election. Two elections, in fact.

Either way, the speech is intended to be a game changer. But the game in question increasingly appears to be that of helping Netanyahu to re-election in 2015, and helping elect the standard bearer of the Republican Party as President of the United States the year after.

The impression of playing electoral politics has grown sharper of late, as Netanyahu has been slipping in opinion polls, and many of those who share his view on Iran believe the speech has been badly counter-productive.

Likud strategists, meanwhile, were quoted Saturday night as saying that the speech to Congress could be worth as many as two additional Knesset seats come Israel's election day, May 17.

Two seats could be just the margin Netanyahu needs to win.

What's the speech to Congress truly about? Consider this:

The timing: Netanyahu and his aides maintain that the issue of forestalling a dangerous deal with Iran was so urgent that the speech could not wait until after the election in Israel.

Except that

At the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, Netanyahu was originally scheduled to address a joint session Congress on February 11. Netanyahu later asked that the speech be postponed by three weeks, slotting the high-profile address just two weeks before the March 17 election.

If Netanyahu truly believed the speech was of the utmost urgency to the Iran question – and not just a grand ploy to sway voters and distract them throughout the campaign from social issues the prime minister wants to avoid - why would he ask to have it postponed?

Then there is the timing of the speech itself. The Tuesday speech to Congress, as well as a companion Netanyahu address Monday to the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby, have both been scheduled for low-rating, midweek, mid-morning Eastern Standard Time, yawningly early in the Western U.S. – but perfect for prime time viewing here in Israel. Which begs the question

Who is the speech really for?

We can rely on the view of no less an authority than Dore Gold, until late December a senior Netanyahu advisor on U.S. ties and Iran, and who in recent days helped the prime minister work on the speech to Congress.

Speaking to Israel Army Radio on Sunday, Gold said, "I recommend that every citizen of Israel pay attention to every single word."

Netanyahu's supporters have maintained that the speech is essential to bring Israel's case front and center before the American public. But as Dore Gold's comment suggests, it is the Israeli voter who will be front and center at prime time.

Who are the visuals for?

The impression of a Netanyahu campaign swing across the seas gained additional clarity on Monday, when it was announced that the prime minister's elder son Yair would be flying to join Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu.
If the trip is really about Iran

Moreover, the prime minister's campaign has been working overtime trying to portray the Netanyahus as Just Folks, in the face of reports by the State Comptroller of the couple's allegedly extravagant living costs, and the government's inaction on a critical shortage in affordable housing. Netanyahu has several times inadvertently confirmed the view that the emphasis on Iran was at least in part a way of ducking and diverting attention away from, domestic issues.

Alluding to the housing report, Netanyahu told Likud activists last week that "When we speak about housing prices and the cost of living, not for one moment do I forget the matter of sustenance itself, of living, that is to say, life.

"And the greatest challenge that we face it the threat of an Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons, with the declared goal of annihilating us."

The quote was posted to Netanyahu's Facebook page, where it caused a brief storm, and was summarily deleted.

More trouble for the campaign may come this week, as a new organization, Women Wage Peace, plans to march to the Knesset on Wednesday, and a mass rally dedicated to toppling Netanyahu is slated for Saturday night at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square.

How does the speech to congress help the Likud's chances in the election?

The sight of Netanyahu speaking in a foreign parliament in a foreign tongue is seen as shoring up the Likud campaign centered on the concept that no one else can handle the premiership.

Beyond that, in courting volatile rightist voters, Netanyahu's knock-down drag-out battle royal with Obama is seen as enhancing his stature. "I am your Daniel in the lion's den," he projects. "I am your valorous David, alone facing down Goliath, I am your rebel, your unjustly vilified martyr, your savior. I am your king – There is none else."

How does the speech help republicans?

It allows groups like the strongly pro-GOP neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel to label Democrats - many of them life-long, vigorous supporters of Israel – as anti-Israel. They are likely to try their best to take advantage of Democratic anger and, in fact, unusual candor, as in the case of California Senator Diane Feinstein.

Feinstein reacted with ire to a statement by Netanyahu as he left for Washington Sunday. "I feel that I am the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, [and] of the entire Jewish People," Netanyahu said.

"He doesn’t speak for me on this," Feinstein told CNN. "I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view.

"I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly."

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