Tonight (Israel time) Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to Congress and attacked the outlines of an agreement that seems to be taking shape between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program. Israelis across the political spectrum have been expressing opinions about the speech long before the first words were uttered.
This morning on the radio, senior political commentator Hanan Crystal called today’s speech delivered by Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress: “The central event in the 2015 election campaign”. It would be hard to overstate the political importance of this speech to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Netanyahu was first invited to give the talk two weeks ago. However, he requested that the address be moved to today, (ostensibly to coincide with his scheduled address to AIPAC, but conveniently moving it closer to Israel’s upcoming election day).
Prior to the Prime Minister’s congressional speech there was a universal sense that the Likud campaign was in deep trouble. The Likud campaign has faltered due to their failure to address the social and economic issues in that Israelis have repeatedly said concern them most. Netanyahu’s response to the State comptroller’s report on the housing crisis – which was to state that while housing is important, it is not as important as living (referring to our need to address the Iranian threat) – did not go over well.
Even before Netanyahu began delivering his speech, it had clearly achieved his goal of changing the public narrative. For several days, the discussion in the country has been about his speech and about the Iranian threat – i.e. the one area where Netanyahu has a clear perceived advantage over his rivals. In the days leading up to the speech Israeli news media commentators were dubious regarding whether or not the Prime Minister’s choice to deliver this speech was the appropriate action to take at this moment.
On Saturday night, Dudi Weisglass, one of former Prime Minister Sharon’s closest advisors, summed up the view of most Israeli commentators best, when he said: If there was even a one-percent chance of changing the outcome of the negotiations with Iran through a speech, then the potential harm that Netanyahu is causing to the future of Israel-American relations would be worth it. However, since Weisglass did not believe there was even a one-percent chance of the speech having an affect, he thought it was a big mistake.
So now, the speech has come and gone. There is no question that those who were sitting in their living rooms in Tel Aviv and throughout Israel watching the Prime Minister’s speech on TV were impressed – (Despite the five-minute delay mandated by the Israeli election commission, in case Netanyahu began giving an election campaign appeal). The citizens of Israel saw the U.S. Congress give Prime Minister Netanyahu repeated standing ovations. This show of approval was without question impressive. Israelis know that they have never before had a leader who gives such powerful speeches in English. Yet, to most Israelis, there was little new in today’s speech. Today’s speech in Congress was similar to several of Netanyahu’s past speeches regarding Iran.
What impact the speech will have on the election is not clear. This evening I spoke to a wide variety of Israelis about the speech. Most had not yet heard the speech and had no opinion. I did have a chance to speak to a group of men outdoors at a local bar who had listened to the address. These men had known each other for almost 40 years and all live in Tel Aviv. To a man, everyone at the table thought the Prime Minister delivered a good speech; a speech that needed to be given. One of them asked me – Have you ever been in a situation in which you knew something bad was happening and yet you did not say anything? That is why Bibi had to speak to Congress today. He has to know that he has done the maximum to stop what he considers a very bad deal. The others at the table all agreed. Most thought that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech might impact the negotiations. A few of the men were concerned that speech might turn Israel into a partisan issue in the United States. Interestingly, none of the six men at the table were planning to vote for Bibi in the coming election, even after what they thought was an excellent speech.
The Israeli elections are now two weeks away. Traditionally, elections in Israel are determined in the last two weeks. Will Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech have an impact on the outcome of elections? Will the Prime Minister’s address have an impact on a potential deal with Iran? The next weeks will tell.