Netanyahu Delivered Just What Obama Feared

Israel’s prime minister delivered a sober reminder of the risks of dealing with Iran—and painted Obama as naive in the process.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. At the risk of further straining the relationship between Israel and the Obama Administration, Netanyahu warned members of Congress against what he considers an ill-advised nuclear deal with Iran.
National Journal
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James Oliphant
March 3, 2015, 7:15 a.m.

Con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans haven’t had many vic­tor­ies in their last­ing con­flict with Pres­id­ent Obama, but Tues­day brought one. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s somber, pro­voc­at­ive speech to Con­gress checked all the boxes.

It called in­to ques­tion the ef­fic­acy of any deal the ad­min­is­tra­tion might strike with Ir­an over its nuc­le­ar pro­gram; it likely re­newed mo­mentum for an­oth­er round of Ir­a­ni­an sanc­tions on the Hill; it po­si­tioned the GOP polit­ic­ally as the party more wor­ried about Is­raeli se­cur­ity, and, des­pite the White House’s best ef­forts, made the pres­id­ent ap­pear petty and churl­ish.

Obama, in an in­ter­view with Re­u­ters, had dis­missed the speech as a “dis­trac­tion,” and aides made sure every­one knew he would be too busy to watch it. But if the pres­id­ent didn’t cast an eye at a TV, he might have been the only per­son in Wash­ing­ton not to. And that’s the prob­lem.

(RE­LATED: Why Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu Al­most Made Nancy Pelosi Cry)

For weeks, the White House has worked stead­ily to write the speech off as a thinly veiled Re­pub­lic­an ploy to un­der­mine the del­ic­ate ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an. But net­work cov­er­age treated it for what it was: the head of state of a crit­ic­al ally de­liv­er­ing a con­tro­ver­sial ad­dress on Amer­ic­an soil. That served the in­terests of both House Speak­er John Boehner, who was the im­petus be­hind the speech, and Net­an­yahu, el­ev­at­ing both of them while key Demo­crats such as Obama, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, Hil­lary Clin­ton, and Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren stayed off­stage.

Net­an­yahu was hailed in the House cham­ber like a con­quer­ing hero. The mo­ment felt, well, pres­id­en­tial. He smartly rose to the oc­ca­sion by tak­ing time to thank Obama’s vari­ous and some­times un­der­pub­li­cized ef­forts on Is­rael’s be­half. “I will al­ways be grate­ful to Pres­id­ent Obama for that sup­port,” he said.

Then, to little sur­prise, he quickly re­minded Con­gress and the pub­lic at large of Ir­a­ni­an threats to an­ni­hil­ate Is­rael and kill its cit­izens. But bey­ond that, he painted a pic­ture of a glob­al, ex­ist­en­tial struggle against re­li­gious ex­trem­ism us­ing the kind of loaded lan­guage that Obama won’t touch. He said Ir­an is a re­gime “hi­jacked by re­li­gious zealots” who are on an ideo­lo­gic­al mis­sion to wage “ji­had.”

Net­an­yahu sug­ges­ted that “West­ern dip­lo­mats” — such as Obama and Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, who is driv­ing the talks — are na­ive and are be­ing charmed and duped by feints to­ward a nuc­le­ar agree­ment. The Ir­a­ni­an re­gime will al­ways be “an en­emy” of Amer­ica. “Don’t be fooled,” he said. He said Ir­an is no dif­fer­ent than IS­IS, even though Ir­a­ni­an forces are fight­ing now to free the Ir­aqi city of Tikrit. “The en­emy of your en­emy is your en­emy,” he said.

(RE­LATED: Frenemies: The U.S. and Is­rael Clash. Again.)

In that con­text, Net­an­yahu ar­gued that any deal struck by Obama and Kerry would fail to sig­ni­fic­antly slow Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram and in­stead would “guar­an­tee” that Tehran would ob­tain nuc­le­ar weapons. He pro­foundly dis­agreed with ad­min­is­tra­tion as­sess­ments on how soon Ir­an could build a bomb if it chose to break the com­pact with the United States and its al­lies. He was dis­missive of Obama’s be­lief that it isn’t real­ist­ic to ex­pect Ir­an to com­pletely dis­mantle its pro­gram.

The po­ten­tial deal, Net­an­yahu said, “does not block Ir­an’s path to the bomb. It paves Ir­an’s path to the bomb.”

He called on the West to keep sanc­tions in place un­til Ir­an shifts in tone and be­ha­vi­or. “If Ir­an wants to be treated like a nor­mal coun­try, let it act like a nor­mal coun­try,” he said. “This is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re bet­ter off without it.” That promp­ted an ova­tion.

In short, Net­an­yahu ac­com­plished everything Re­pub­lic­ans wanted and the White House feared. Polls show that the Amer­ic­an pub­lic is skep­tic­al of Ir­an’s motives in strik­ing a deal, and the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter stoked those sus­pi­cions. Obama has taken a large — and likely a leg­acy-de­fin­ing — risk in ad­voc­at­ing for the talks. And Net­an­yahu re­minded the world of just how large a risk it is.

The pres­id­ent’s chal­lenge in that re­gard just got tough­er. And it doesn’t help that he didn’t both­er to en­gage with Net­an­yahu at all. In the in­ter­view with Re­u­ters, Obama clung to the no­tion that he didn’t want to af­fect the out­come of Is­raeli elec­tions in two weeks, even as he sug­ges­ted that Net­an­yahu’s judg­ment with re­gard to Ir­an couldn’t be trus­ted.

Yes, the speech to Con­gress was, at heart, a pro­pa­ganda piece, one care­fully or­ches­trated by Obama’s ad­versar­ies. But that didn’t make it any less ef­fect­ive. And it was one whose af­teref­fects this White House could be feel­ing for a long time.

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