While United States and Iranian officials met to outline a nuclear deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided their efforts in a controversial speech to the U.S. Congress. President Barack Obama chided Netanyahu for presenting no alternative to the deal being cooked up in Geneva, but for Netanyahu, this speech was never only about hard policy. This was grand theater.
Opponents of Netanyahu’s speech argued that the Israeli leader could have made the same case at a different time, in a different place, or in a different manner. But the time, place, and manner were the speech. Waiting until after a deal was announced would concede to Obama a crucial advantage; Netanyahu wanted the first word. The venue, too, was central. Backroom meetings on Capitol Hill or even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) stage wouldn’t have yielded the same drama and rapt audience of an event that the New York Times described as “similar to a State of the Union address, but more electric.” Even the manner of the run-up to the speech—the rudeness of the Republican invitation, the ruthlessness of its planning—helped the prime minister steal the show in American media.
The content, too, was theatrical. Netanyahu framed the Iranian issue as one of grand values, not grand strategy. At its core, much of his speech did not relate to Iran’s nuclear program at all. Instead, the prime minister gave a brief of what the Iranian regime has wrought in the Middle East. And he further dramatized the U.S.-Israel relationship, wrapping the Jewish narrative in the American one—“Overlooking all of us in this chamber is the image of Moses,” Netanyahu inserted at one point. Would the United States really embark on a sterile offshore balancing in the region and fray the bond between the two Promised Lands, of Israel and America?
Here, Obama’s grounded point—what would be the practical alternative to the potential P5+1 deal—speaks past Netanyahu. Between the lines, though, Netanyahu may have hinted at a provocative answer. Given the alternatives of (1) a “bad deal” that marginally sets back the nuclear program but significantly boosts the Iranian regime’s legitimacy and (2) “no deal,” lifting all restraints on the program but keeping the regime a pariah in American eyes, Netanyahu might prefer (2). This risks either a costly military operation to set back the program or a Middle East awash in nuclear proliferation. But that option also prevents the Iranian regime from gaining political cover to entrench its proxies further along Israel’s borders, and keeps intact the norm of international disgust with the regime’s hideous rhetoric toward Israel.
For now, Netanyahu does not want that choice: He wants both an Iran without nuclear capability and also a regime shackled by sanctions and disrepute. And he wants a more concerted will from the P5+1—and from Congress—to get there.
Crucially, Netanyahu also wants to be reelected. With Israeli elections due March 17, his speech, with its emotional plays to the Zionist narrative and the roaring applause, distinguishes Netanyahu from the duo he considers his two weakling foils: the appeaser Barack Obama and Israeli opposition leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, whose nickname Netanyahu says with delicious disdain. The speech also helps Netanyahu set the agenda down the campaign’s home stretch. Some 48 percent of Israelis say the economy is the most important issue for the next government to address, with only 10 percent flagging the Iranian one. Those numbers bode ill for Netanyahu, and he wants voters focused on the security arena where he holds an edge. Already, this speech pushed a devastating report on Israel’s housing crisis off the front pages.
But as grand as it was, Netanyahu’s speech has an uncertain impact. It won’t substantially affect the election’s outcome. In the multiparty chaos of Israeli politics, few, if any, voters are undecided between Netanyahu and Herzog. Netanyahu’s real rivals are smaller right-wing parties headed by figures like Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. At most, Netanyahu’s play in Washington might siphon a few Knesset seats from those factions toward his Likud.
Even after elections, Netanyahu will still need to lobby centrist and religious parties to form a coalition government. Those parties—representing millions of Israeli voters—have far different priorities: the cost of living and housing, stipends to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students, government services such as education and health. When the coalition-building and horse-trading start post-elections, negotiations will focus on promises of ministries and budgets, not the high-minded rhetoric of grand values on display in Washington.
On the Iranian nuclear issue, the speech’s impact may linger. In the coming weeks, Congressional legislation to kill a “bad deal” might reach the cusp of the two-thirds majority needed to override Obama’s promised veto. Netanyahu’s speech could win the last few, crucial votes. Or, his burned bridges with some Democrats could haunt efforts to pass the bill, and exacerbate the already widening partisan gap among Americans regarding support for Israel. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi—a longtime, committed friend of Israel—was seething throughout the speech.
In the meantime, Netanyahu has left a legacy of a grand speech unafraid to tackle grand ideas. To contest him, Obama will need much more than a mundane appeal to practical policy concerns. Obama is too shrewd a leader and speaker to allow Tuesday’s speech as the last word. Netanyahu might have introduced the theatrics, but other acts in this drama are sure to come.
Owen Alterman is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.