When Binyamin Netanyahu was charming his friends and riling his foes speaking to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3, Isaac Herzog of the Labour party, who is the Israeli prime minister’s main rival in the upcoming parliamentary elections, was delivering a campaign speech in a small town near the Gaza border. Not a single television camera covered Herzog’s speech, which was made at a small auditorium with bad acoustics, making it difficult for everyone to understand what he was saying. For Netanyahu, however, the acoustics and visibility were the best in the world. His speech was telecast live to millions of households and they all saw American lawmakers fawning over Netanyahu, addressed popularly as Bibi, and showing their absolute approval with repeated standing ovations. But we will have to wait for a few more days to see whether Herzog’s uninspiring speech at a nondescript town will trump his more celebrated rival’s Capitol speech.
While Netanyahu and Republican leaders like House Speaker John Boehner who invited him said the speech was an attempt to convey to the Congress and the American public Israel’s concerns about the on going nuclear negotiations between the US led P-5+1 group and Iran, it was a campaign speech for all practical purposes. Combining all elements of a typical Netanyahu performance, he lined up before the Congress the threat from Iran and its growing power and influence. He said the Iranian fortunes were on the ascent, evident from the fact that it now controlled at least four states in the Middle East—Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Therefore, said Netanyahu, any concession to Iran on the nuclear front would be a major mistake. “We have been told that no deal is better than a bad deal,” said Netanyahu, referring to the nuclear negotiations. “Well this is a bad deal, a very bad deal.”
The US and its European allies are working to scale down the Iranian nuclear programme and keep it liable to international inspections so that it would be used only for power generation and medical purposes, for a period of 10 years. Iran now has about 19,000 centrifuges, of which nearly 10,000 are said to be enriching uranium. The negotiations are intended to limit this to a few hundred in the beginning and, if Tehran keeps its end of the bargain, raise it to a few hundred, and ultimately to around 6,000 after Iran ships its uranium stockpile to Russia for conversion to fuel rods. This, the US says will restrict Iran’s capability to develop nuclear weapons and ensure at least a year’s breakout period.
Netanyahu, however, said the deal would leave Iran with the ability to enrich uranium and produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb. He referred to instances in the past to point out that Iran had not always been honest with international inspectors and also complained that limiting the deal for 10 years was a mistake. “The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal, a better deal that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short breakout time. A better deal that keeps the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme in place until Iran’s aggression ends,” said Netanyahu. He also demanded guarantees about Iran’s behaviour, that it “stops aggression against its neighbours, stops supporting terrorist groups, and stops its rhetorical threats to annihilate Israel”. And, if it falls short, he wanted tough sanctions to continue. Netanyahu asked the Congress to intervene and block if the agreement fell short of these parameters.
Any follower of international politics could tell you that it is not the way negotiations are conducted. Netanyahu’s prescriptions are not going to resolve the crisis in Iran. That is possibly the reason why US President Barack Obama dismissed Netanyahu’s address saying it had nothing new to offer. A matter of concern for Netanyahu is the fact that although 90 per cent of Congress showed up for the speech, a number of influential democrats, including several Jewish members, and a large number of African-American members—traditional supporters of Israel—stayed away. Vice president Joe Biden was another notable absentee. House minority leader and former speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said the speech was an “insult to the intelligence of the United States” that had left her near tears.
Yet, this need not be construed as a major break between Israel and the US. Both countries have a history dating back to more than half a century and their interests are so entwined that such a minor disagreement will bring about any lasting damage. One big reason for the present crisis is the complete lack of chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu. During the last presidential elections, Netanyahu had openly declared his support for Mitt Romney, adding to the woes. Yet, with 90 per cent of the Congress openly rooting for him, even on the face of complete opposition from the president, Netanyahu can claim some success. In fact, if the US can conclude a deal with Iran, Israel will be its prime beneficiary.
The Israeli prime minister is no fool not to realise these facts. So, what was the game he was playing? He, probably, was eyeing the conservative vote back home in the March 17 elections as the left has already consolidated behind Herzog, giving the Labour leader an early advantage. Several opinion polls have suggested that even the conservatives, the backbone of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, have grown tired of the prime minister. If they decide to shift their support to other right-wing parties, Netanyahu is likely to fall short of meaningful numbers and it will give Israel’s president, Ruvi Rivlin, who is not among Netanyahu’s best friends, to explore the likelihood of a national-unity government, or even a leftist government, if the Zionist Camp coalition—of which Labour is a part—does well.
In Israel, even the election commission felt that Netanyahu’s address to the Congress was a campaign stunt and it had ordered television stations to air it on a five-second delay in case the prime minister slipped into campaign mode. But most opinion polls suggest that Netanyahu may not have received a significant bump from his address.
Yet, even a mild spike in support could see him through. Habayit Hayehudi party of Naftali Bennett and Shas party led by Arye Dery have both declared on the eve of Netanyahu’s speech that they supported the prime minister. Observers point out that “all Netanyahu needs is about 30,000 Likudniks who were planning to vote for Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party” and a similar number who were thinking of voting for Habayit Hayehudi to ‘return home,’ and he will be in pole position again.
Perhaps, that was what the March 3 address was all about. And the world will get to gauge its success in less than a fortnight.