Was Netanyahu's speech worth it?

What, if anything, did Benjamin Netanyahu achieve?


What, if anything, did Benjamin Netanyahu achieve?

Before and after his speech to Congress on Tuesday, the criticism flowed freely from the commentariat: nothing he could say would ever change the Obama administration’s mind about a nuclear agreement with Iran; the speech was aimed at an Israeli electorate that cares more about the cost of housing than the threat of the Islamic Republic; it was heavy on rhetoric and showmanship but light on deal-breaking facts; it further damaged US-Israel relations.

And yet among the Middle East’s Sunni leaders, who share Israel’s concern about Iran’s nuclear programme and its aspirations for regional hegemony, the speech was greeted with warmth.

Faisal J Abbas, editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned news channel, penned an unprecedented editorial entitled: “President Obama, listen to Netanyahu on Iran.”

He wrote: “In just a few words, Mr Netanyahu managed to accurately summarise a clear and present danger, not just to Israel (which obviously is his concern), but to other US allies in the region.” Other newspapers in Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf echoed this line.

Many analysts have pointed out that Mr Netanyahu merely repeated arguments that he has made many times in the past — in particular, that a nuclear deal would “pave the way for a bomb”.

But the rapturous reception he received, with multiple standing ovations during his 55-minute speech, suggested that he went down well with a large section of his target audience — members of Congress who can restrict President Barack Obama’s ability to sign a nuclear deal with Iran. Certainly, the great majority of Republican members and a number of Democrats endorsed Mr Netanyahu’s call for a much harder bargain to be driven.

Sources close to Mr Netanyahu said that the effect of his reception in Congress would be felt in the negotiating room. “The Iranians were watching this very closely,” said one Likud minister on Wednesday. “It has created an additional source of pressure on them, now that they know that Congress will fight the current deal. This can change the dynamic beacause they will increase their demands. The administration will also have more leverage as they can say to the Iranians, we have to go back and sell this deal to Congress, who are against.”

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi suggested that the speech might have moved Congress into actively opposing the prospective nuclear deal. Republican lawmakers, in their initial reactions, demanded that “Congress must assert its role and responsibility as a co-equal branch in the safety of America and Israel,” as Doug Lamborn of Colorado put it.

And yet there was a backlash from some of the Democrats who had initially backed — and still support in principle — imposing additional sanctions on the Iranians. Such a move would need Democratic support to have any chance of reaching a veto-proof majority. Senator Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who is co-sponsoring this legislation, reacted angrily to suggestions that it would be fast-tracked following Mr Netanyahu’s speech. “There’s no reason to accelerate this process in this way,” he said on Tuesday. He was echoing the Obama administration’s reaction that the prime minister had presented no new alternative to the impending agreement in his speech.

Overall, the situation in Washington does not seem significantly different following the speech, with the administration still trying to reach an agreement and the Republicans aiming at blocking it but lacking the requisite majority.

In diplomatic circles, there are widely differing assessments on the viability of reaching an agreement this month. But for Mr Netanyahu, there are more immediate concerns back in Israel. There is an election to be won and political opponents trying to change the agenda and shift public attention away from the Iranian issue.

On Sunday evening, activists set up again in Rothschild Boulevard. Nearly four years after the “tent protest” which kicked off the biggest series of demonstrations in Israeli history, some are trying to reignite the social-justice movement.

Opinion polls have placed the Iranian nuclear threat at only fifth on the list of issues worrying Israeli voters — below the cost of living, housing shortages and renewed violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

While the diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority is rarely mentioned at election events, Mr Netanyahu’s challengers from the centrist parties have sought to focus the campaign on financial issues, particularly the difficulty of purchasing a first home.

Last week’s report from the State Comptroller on the housing crisis, which followed a previous report on the expenses of the prime minister’s official residence, seem to have taken a toll on his standing, with Likud down by a couple of seats in the polls. However, these issues have so far failed rouse much passion in the campaign. Likudniks are speculating hopefully that the Congress speech will regain the votes that are necessary to close the small gap with Zionist Union and perhaps even reopen a small lead.

Labour leader Isaac Herzog has had to tread a wary path in response. “No Israeli leader can countenance a nuclear Iran” he said. “But Netanyahu’s speech will not affect the agreement, not its substance or its timetable.” His party’s candidate for finance minister, Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, said in a meeting with young voters in Jerusalem that he had had “enough of this fear-mongering. We have a real crisis of housing now which is affecting our real lives.”

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