Netanyahu's Congress Speech Was Much Ado About Nothing

Netanyahu seemed like he was making plans for the day after his defeat - not a 'time-out' from politics like the one that followed his 1999 loss, but a bid to become defense minister in Isaac Herzog’s government.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress, March 3, 2015.Credit: AFP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

If this was supposed to be the peak moment of Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign, he’s in terminal condition. His speech to Congress was much ado about nothing, delivered with an attitude of resignation to his loss of the premiership.

Netanyahu seemed like he was making plans for the day after his defeat – not a “time-out” from politics like the one that followed his 1999 loss, but a bid to become defense minister in Isaac Herzog’s government. His argument is already prepared: The bad deal with Tehran only postpones the threat of Iran’s nuclearization until 2025. For the sake of the nation, for the sake of humanity, Netanyahu must stick around to thwart the danger waiting for us around the corner, in just another decade. He’s willing to give up the prime ministry and focus on defense.

Politically, the speech failed. It was existential boredom. His captive audience would have applauded even had he read it the Caesarea phone book, but he put it to sleep. His lesson in nuclear physics caused his pupils’ eyes to close. They, as usual, brought their applause, but the lecturer, unusually, spent too much time on boring details rather than soaring rhetoric. His Iranomania didn’t intoxicate the Americans. They too oppose Iranian nukes, but they also have other problems, and different cost-benefit calculations.

And what a pity it was that Netanyahu, having generated so much interest in what he would say, didn’t bother saying a word about an agreement with the Palestinians. “Peace” on its own, with no mention of the vision or the price, is an empty word.

The last foreign leader to occupy this platform – without clashing with President Barack Obama or being boycotted by senators and congressmen – was Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. They applauded him last fall against his rival, Russian President Vladimir Putin. And much good it did him.

Before him came two consecutive presidents of South Korea, which fears North Korea’s nukes. There have been Britons and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Iranians, Jordanians and Iraqis, prime ministers and kings and presidents; among them were Herzog’s father, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. They all came, conquered the Hill and went home. Even Winston Churchill was followed at this podium by the man who defeated him in the election, Clement Attlee.

Netanyahu was weakened by Obama’s counterattack. He has stopped demanding additional sanctions on Iran; Tuesday, he made do with demanding, almost pleading, that existing sanctions be left in place. But that’s unrealistic. Any deal will include lifting the sanctions.

Therefore, Netanyahu is trying to change the rules by expanding the negotiations from the nuclear issue alone to include missiles and terrorism. A worthy goal, but there’s no chance the countries negotiating with Iran will condition a nuclear agreement on achieving it. And the justified demand that Iran accepts Israel’s existence, as recommended by senior defense officials, he raised only after it was too late.

An hour before the speech, in another Congressional chamber, two senior Pentagon officials presented Obama’s military priorities in the Mideast. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, listed them from top to bottom: defeating the Islamic State, bolstering Afghanistan’s security forces, fighting Al-Qaida, and only then, in fourth place, Iran – both its nuclear program and its support for terror. Under Secretary of Defense Christine Wormuth reduced the list to two: first Islamic State, then Iran.

The briefing was professional and detailed, devoid of flowery rhetoric and illusions – just what Netanyahu could have delivered had he cared about results rather than electioneering. Lofty words tend to collapse into practical compromises – as the man who invited him, Speaker of the House John Boehner, also knows, having capitulated over the homeland security budget just hours earlier.

Boehner’s standing among Republications was weakened, as was Netanyahu’s among Israelis. But who cares? What matters is that Elie Wiesel was sitting alongside Sara Netanyahu, so the cameras focused on him would capture her as well. And we can only guess what Netanyahu was thinking when he looked at them and said, “Never again.”