Netanyahu speech will be tested by its effect on Iran deal
Op-ed: It doesn’t matter how many times Congress members interrupt the prime minister's address with applause; if nothing changes in the terms of the nuclear agreement with Tehran, all he has done is fly 9,000 kilometers and return with a Churchill bust.
Netanyahu is arriving at the Congress not just as a representative of an ally, not just as one of their own, a Republican among Republicans, but also as a person who is daring to publicly confront a president who the Republicans will do anything to humiliate. There will be three good reasons, therefore, for a downpour of applause: Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama. Where's Iran in this story? That's a good question.
Several dozen Democratic Congress members, including Jews, will not attend the speech. The most painful absence, as far as Israel and the Jews are concerned, will be of some of the black Congress members.
There is another absence which is taking place quietly, under the radar: The 11 US Supreme Court justices have been invited to the event. They all said they would be unable to attend. Three of the Supreme Court judges are Jews who support Israel; at least six are conservatives appointed by Republican presidents. This was their way of saying: There is something faulty, unconstitutional, in the way the prime minister was invited. We are not part of this affair.
When Netanyahu arrives at the Congress, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner will give him a bust of Winston Churchill. Netanyahu will reward Boehner with a menorah and a Book of Esther. Some will see the exchange of gifts as evidence of the host and guest's good taste; some will see the ridiculous aspect: Netanyahu is no Churchill. The Jews will not be redeemed and saved by this speech.
The situation may have been better had the Israeli government been headed by Winston Churchill and had the US House of Representatives speaker presented him with a bust of Benjamin Netanyahu. But why fall into illusions? That's not the case.
The White House is operating against Netanyahu's campaign on two fronts. On the one hand, its spokespeople are emphasizing the aid that the administration has given and is giving Israel; on the other hand, they are clarifying that the campaign will not make any difference in the negotiations they are holding with Iran.
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power addressed the AIPAC Policy Conference on Monday, several minutes before Netanyahu's speech. The huge crowd – about 16,000 people, practically all of them Jews – listened to her courteously, but that was about it. The applause grew stronger only when she promised that the relationship between Israel and the United States transcends politics.
"The United States of America will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Period," Power promised. "If diplomacy should fail, we know the stakes of a nuclear-armed Iran as well as everyone here. We will not let it happen." The silence in the chamber pointed to the lack of trust.
Losing the majority
A word about AIPAC, the Jewish lobby: I have been following this organization closely since its very first years. It has grown and developed and become the most important organization in the Jewish community and one of the strongest lobby organizations in Washington.
In the meantime, it has undergone a transformation: The Republican-affiliated Jews are increasingly standing out, while the Democrats' supporters, who are the vast majority in the community, are retreating. The donors control it; the right controls it. It enjoys plenty of money, influence and connections, but is increasingly losing the community.
The enthusiastic crowd which arrives in Washington every year is far from reflecting the tendencies of the majority of the Jewish community. What will AIPAC be worth without the majority of the Jews? Not much.
But for most of those who came to Washington, Netanyahu's arrival is the closest thing to the arrival of the Messiah. "Wow," the young ones roared. "Wow." And the older ones rose from their seats and flooded him with applause.
Netanyahu didn't want to steal the show from his Congress speech on Tuesday. That's understandable. Monday's address was mainly aimed at fixing the impression that Netanyahu was sent to Washington by his Republican patrons who have recruited him to their partisan battle against the president.
"We’re like a family," Netanyahu said, adding the Yiddish word "mishpocha" to the audience's delight. "Disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family."
Those insisting on looking for historical accuracy in speeches of this kind will face difficulties. There was an opposite problem: Netanyahu's didn't lie enough. After going on about his wife's courage ("I'm so proud to have you here with me today, to have you with me at my side always") and praising Ron Dermer, his problematic ambassador in Washington ("I couldn't be prouder to have you representing Israel in Washington"); after saying that he has great respect both for President Obama and for his office – it wouldn't have done him any harm to shower Obama and his administration with a few more compliments.
It wouldn't have done any harm if he had given up the distinction, which is a correct one, between the way Obama sees Iran – as a security problem – and the way he sees it – as a threat to destroy Israel. What his listeners could understand was that he is accusing the White House of accepting Israel's destruction. That's not the way to reconcile with Obama.
Netanyahu mentioned previous conflicts between the administration and Israel, and interpreted them his way. It's interesting that in each of the conflicts he mentioned, the Israeli prime ministers were willing to enter a conflict with administration officials on the background of something Israel had done, usually a military move. Netanyahu is the first one to enter a conflict for the sake of a speech.
This is the essence of the problem in his move: It's all talk. "We could never speak on our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves," he said in his speech Monday. "Today, we are no longer silent; today, we have a voice. And tomorrow, as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice."
And he will. The success of his speech Tuesday will not be tested by the number of times Congress members interrupt it with applause, but only by its influence on the terms of the agreement with Iran. If nothing changes on that front, what have we down? Flown 9,000 kilometers and returned with a small statue.