It was widely suggested, ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu’s spectacularly controversial address to Congress on Tuesday, that the prime minister would have to deliver the speech of his life in order to justify the damage he would inevitably be causing to relations between his government and the Obama Administration. In the event, Netanyahu did deliver the speech of his life… and caused devastating, presumably irrevocable damage to his relationship with President Barack Obama.
On CNN, former administration official Martin Indyk called ties between the two leaders “toxic.” And that was moments before Netanyahu began his address. It’s hard to imagine the adjective that would best describe feelings in the Oval Office once the prime minister was done.
The next meeting between the two men will be fascinating to contemplate. And while Obama will hope even more fervently now that there will be no next meeting — that Netanyahu will fail to win reelection — the prime minister will not have done his electoral prospects any harm at all with this address. Many undecided Israelis will be asking themselves whether, in a moment of crisis, they can envisage Isaac Herzog holding the American parliament similarly mesmerized in support of a cause of passionate concern for Israel, and the answer will be no.
Although diplomatic in tone — and complete with deliberate Churchillian flourishes — “some change, some moderation,” he intoned of Iran under Hassan Rouhani — Netanyahu’s speech was in essence a devastating assault on Obama. He began, dutifully, with expressions of appreciation for the president, and for everything the president has done for Israel. But he continued, for the vast majority of his address, to explain the profound misjudgment of Iran — its ideology, its goals, and the immense danger it constitutes to Israel, the region, the United States, and the world — that lies at the heart of the “very bad deal” emerging from the US-led P5+1 negotiations. And thus, by extension, he was explaining the profound misjudgment of Iran at the core of Obama’s worldview and policies.
While Israelis broadly oppose the deal they see taking shape, and mistrust Obama when it comes to stopping a nuclear Iran, there was no consensus in Israel about the tactic of addressing Congress at this juncture, no little criticism of the move as an electoral gambit, two weeks before Israeli election day. And Netanyahu is indeed an ultra-sophisticated politician whose only regret about the timing of the speech was that it didn’t start two hours later — when it would have gone out live, albeit with the court-mandated five-minute delay, on the main 8 p.m. Israeli news broadcasts.
But Netanyahu’s address had a clear practical goal as well. He was lobbying Congress, and lobbying the American public watching at home to pressure Congress, to assert its maximal capacity to thwart the progress of the deal that Obama has cooked up. While 50 or 60 legislators elected to absent themselves, the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats were there to nod sagely at Netanyahu’s elaboration of Iran’s rapacious, religiously driven ideology and territorial ambitions, to applaud, to jump to their feet, to be won over.
For all the cynicism and the political filtering over Netanyahu’s motivations, furthermore, the prime minister is convinced, in his heart of hearts, that Iran is determined to advance its benighted ideology across the region and beyond. The prime minister is convinced, in his heart of hearts, that the deal taking shape will immunize the ayatollahs from any prospect of revolution from within or effective challenge from without. The deal “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb,” he warned. “It paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”
And the cardinal fact is that the prime minister is convinced, in his heart of hearts, that the Islamist regime in Tehran is bent on the destruction of Israel. Ayatollah Khamenei “tweets that Israel must be annihilated,” Netanyahu wailed, repeating: “He tweets! You know, in Iran, there isn’t exactly free Internet. But he tweets in English that Israel must be destroyed.”
Although a first response to his speech from an unnamed White House official said that Netanyahu had offered “no concrete alternative” to the deal taking shape, and that his speech was “all rhetoric and no action,” and despite Obama’s subsequent elaborate defense of the US approach, the prime minister did offer an alternative. He urged the P5+1 to recalibrate, to reconsider, and then to push for a better deal. And “if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff,” he advised, the wise, wary Middle Easterner lecturing Obama and the other Western naifs. “They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”
When “my long-time friend, John Kerry,” had confirmed to Netanyahu that “Iran could legitimately possess” 190,000 centrifuges enriching uranium when the deal expires; when the terms taking shape would leave Iran a year or less from a break out to the bomb; when Iran could be relied upon to play “hide and cheat” with the inspectors; when Iran would be free under the deal to continue development of the missiles with which it could deliver nuclear weapons — when these and other dangers were being built into an Obama-pushed agreement, then, yes, the price of alienating the current US administration is quite clearly one that Netanyahu is willing to pay.
Of course it is. For Obama will be gone in two years. But the way Netanyahu sees it, the way Netanyahu spelled it out with such compelling detail and passion on Tuesday, if this kind of deal is finalized with Iran, the ayatollahs will be threatening us all, and will be capable of doing far more than just threaten, for the foreseeable future.