JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands to get at least a small, but potentially decisive, election bump from his speech yesterday at a joint session of Congress, where he castigated President Barack Obama for his handling of nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The controversial address appears to have deepened the rift between Netanyahu’s government and the Obama administration without actually advancing the Israeli leader’s objectives — foremost among them to impede the agreement shaping up between the U.S. and Iran. Administration officials said today that negotiators would continue their talks in Geneva aimed at clinching a deal later this month.
But in Israel, the image of Netanyahu championing Israeli interests in the American capital and receiving more than 20 standing ovations in the process could provide the margin he needs to secure a third consecutive term when Israelis go to the polls in less than two weeks, according to analysts.
“I think it played well here. In a way, it was a masterpiece,” said Tamar Hermann, a political scientist who conducts regular polling for the Israel Democracy Institute. “From a theatrical point of view, he did a great job.”
Netanyahu is fighting a tough election campaign against not just the main opposition party, known as the Zionist Camp, but also a raft of right-wing and center factions. Under Israel’s parliamentary system, the more support these smaller factions drain from Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, the harder it will be for him to form a majority coalition and keep his job as prime minister.
The election will take place on March 17.
Normally, antagonizing the White House would not make for a fruitful campaign strategy. The U.S. gives Israel key political support and billions in military aid and is seen in Israel as a vital ally. At least once in the past, Israeli voters have punished an incumbent who appeared to mismanage the relationship. (The incumbent, Yitzhak Shamir, was defeated by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992).
But Netanyahu seems to be willing to gamble that Israelis feel differently in the current campaign cycle. For one thing, many of them simply don’t like Obama. In a poll published last year, only one in three Israelis had a favorable view of the American president. And they seem to be particularly troubled by his handling of negotiations with Iran. Only one in five Israelis said Obama could be trusted to prevent the Islamic regime from developing nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu echoed the distrust again and again in his speech before Congress, which nearly 60 Democratic lawmakers boycotted. He said Obama was negotiating a “bad deal” that would leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place and threaten Israel’s survival.
“The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. … We can't let that happen,” Netanyahu said.
“But that, my friends, is exactly what could happen if the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran. That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.”
Obama, who has pledged again and again to prevent Iran from become a nuclear power, said he heard nothing new or constructive in Netanyahu’s remarks.
“The alternative the prime minister offers is no deal, in which case Iran will immediately begin once again to pursue a nuclear program, accelerate its nuclear program, without us having any insight into what they’re doing and without constraints.”
Many Israelis, including former military generals and intelligence chiefs, have criticized Netanyahu for allowing the relationship with Washington to fray. Meir Dagan, who led Israel’s spy agency Mossad from 2002 to 2010, told an Israeli newspaper last week that the prime minister’s policies were “destructive to the future and security of Israel.”
Amnon Reshef, a retired major general, said the perception among Israel’s enemies that its relationship with the U.S. had deteriorated is a dangerous development. “Nothing good will come to Israel from this speech,” he told Yahoo News.
But Netanyahu views these critics as unwavering adversaries, people well beyond his reach when it comes to getting votes. His election bump will likely come from voters with positions that are closer to his own on Iran and other security matters — people who have migrated to smaller parties within the nationalist camp over economic or social issues.
Those secondary issues — including a severe housing shortage highlighted in a recent government report — tend to influence elections only when security matters move to the bottom of the campaign agenda. With his dramatic address in Congress, Netanyahu was ensuring that the issue perceived as his strength remains at the top.
“What’s certain is that this week will be dominated by the issue Netanyahu and his campaign want to highlight,” wrote political analyst Yossi Verter in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper Wednesday. “Security, security, security.”