By Annabelle Timsit
Much like the snowpocalypse that was supposed to hit Washington a few weeks ago, Bibi’s speech to Congress came and went, but had very little overall effect. Far from the cosmic seizure some predicted in US-Israeli relations and bipartisan relations in Congress, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech came off as a skilled orator’s very successful use of the world’s best reelection platform, namely the United States Congress, rather than as an earth-shattering attempt to change the course of the Iran nuclear peace talks. The speech boiled down to some admittedly scary predictions of a nuclear Iran, a religious warning not to ignore the past, and some very complimentary remarks towards the ever-enduring US-Israeli relations, but with very little substance. That doesn’t mean it was a bad political move, however.
The main criticism leveraged against his speech was the lack of content or of any substantial alternative to talks with Iran. Short of calling it a “very bad deal” and warning the Congressmen and women of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Ayatollah (whom he equated with the Nazi regime of WWII), he didn’t offer any options other than maintaining nuclear restrictions on Iran until it stopped promoting terrorism, trying to annihilate Israel, and attacking its neighbors in the Middle East. This begs the question: if nuclear restrictions could stop Iran from doing these things at any given point in time, why are we still in this dire situation?
Another criticism levied against him was his use of Congress as a reelection platform. It is no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu faces a tough reelection campaign at home. Some (including the leader of the Labor opposition, Isaac Herzog) have criticized him for using the Republicans’ invitation to speak before Congress to showcase his tough stance on security and his good relations with the US administration. In all fairness, however, the line is often blurred when an incumbent faces a reelection. Where do official duties end and campaigning speeches begin?
Those who expected anything different were naïve at best and ignorant at worst. If Israel had a viable solution to the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran, it would have presented it to the P5 +1 nations (or had the US present it for them) a long time ago. If Netanyahu came to the US to boost his reelection campaign, then the images of his standing ovation in Congress will indeed accomplish just that; he can go home and reward his PR team. Those, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who found his speech “condescending” because of its lack of respect for US intelligence, are grasping at straws to criticize him without appearing to do so. As Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) said after the event, “Every speech contains passages which remind the audience of facts they already know, and conclusions with which they already agree…That is not condescension; that is oratory.”
The Israeli prime minister will now wait and see if his rhetoric scared enough Congress members to override a presidential veto of legislation which would beef up sanctions against Iran should it fail to sign an agreement. Obama previously warned that any such legislation could kill the talks. Bibi’s clear lobbying efforts for just that outcome will certainly weaken an already fragile relationship with the Obama administration. With President Obama’s term ending in a year, it wasn’t very likely he could have exerted enough influence to prevent Bibi from accepting the Republicans’ invitation in the first place.
The speech caused some bruised egos, as its boycott from close to 60 Democrats in Congress showed, and it definitely caused a rift in the relations between the direct Israeli and American leadership for now. Apart from the “near tears” of Nancy Pelosi and the fact that Obama will probably be cheering for the other side on March 17th, however, Bibi’s speech accomplished little and changed nothing.