Fear and bluster in Congress

In the end, Binyamin Netanyahu sidestepped the nuclear option in his speech this week to the United States Congress and did what he does so well: scared politicians to death.

The White House had warned the Israeli prime minister off trying to wreck Western negotiations with Iran by revealing inside details of the deal being hammered out over Tehran’s atomic programme. Netanyahu’s aides had darkly hinted that he would do it anyway.

But his highly divisive speech to Congress – boycotted by close to 60 Democratic members who objected to a foreign leader using the Capitol as a re-election platform and pulpit to bully the US president – merely regurgitated information that Netanyahu himself said is easily found on Google.

The Israeli prime minister was received like a president about to give the State of the Union address. Netanyahu glad-handed members of Congress who crowded in around him as he worked his way down the aisle toward the podium.

But the triumphant mood swiftly changed as he began to speak. Netanyahu railed against a “bad deal” he said would allow Iran to build as many nuclear bombs as it wants in a decade, if it waits that long.

In the meantime, he said, Iran was “gobbling up” countries across the Middle East. Four to date. He dragged in references to the Nazis and an ancient Persian potentate who wanted to wipe out the Jews as he painted a vision of a “potential nuclear nightmare”.

“The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over,” he thundered.

But Netanyahu was short on the substance of what to do about it other than to oppose the deal that appears to be shaping up.

Poisonous relationship
The White House reaction summed up the speech: all rhetoric, no new ideas, no action.

The Obama administration’s swift put-down was as clear a signal as any that the already poisonous relationship between the Israeli prime minister and the president of the Jewish state’s most important ally is not going to get any easier.

Netanyahu tried to paint the furore over his address to Congress two weeks before the Israeli general election, and arranged behind the White House’s back, as a baffling misunderstanding. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention,” he said.

His speech said otherwise. It was evidently aimed at the electors back home and the US president’s opponents in Congress.

Netanyahu buttered up his audience with plenty of references to all that the US has done for Israel, including praise for Barack Obama – although he thanked the president for helping out with a forest fire and Congress for funding the “iron dome” anti-missile shield.

But his central message was that Obama was not to be trusted with the security of Israel. That rang true with those Republicans who think the president cannot be trusted with the security of the US.

Netanyahu said that the deal under negotiation “would all but guarantee Iran gets nuclear weapons”. He warned about Iran’s short “breakout time” to build an atomic bomb, although he has been waving the same timetable for so many years now that if it were accurate Tehran should have a whole stockpile of nuclear missiles by now.

“Iran has proven time and again that it cannot be trusted. It leaves Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure,” he said. “That’s why this deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb. It paves Iran’s path to the bomb. This is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”

Endless sanctions
But Netanyahu did not offer any alternative solutions other than endless sanctions against Iran until it meets a series of vague demands to “stop aggression against its neighbours”, stop “supporting terrorism around the world and stop threatening to annihilate … the only Jewish state”. The last demand got a loud standing ovation.

Netanyahu’s most immediate concern is whether what was a classic Likud party political broadcast – the party of Ariel Sharon always did well when the voters were scared – was enough to get him re-elected in a fortnight in a tight race against a centre-left coalition.

The Israeli prime minister will also be waiting to see whether his speech scared up enough votes in Congress to override a presidential veto of legislation strengthening sanctions against Iran if it failed to sign an agreement or signed one and breached it. Obama has warned that the legislation could kill the talks.

The only thing the speech has done for sure is to perpetuate the deep breach in trust between the US and Israeli leaders.

But Netanyahu managed to achieve something else. He made the mistake of forcing Democratic members of Congress to choose between Israel and their president.

Scores boycotted. Others attended the speech reluctantly, fearful of the political consequences of upsetting the pro-Israel lobby.

That has to an extent liberated some in Congress from the old yoke that tied support of Israel to support of its government’s policies. They’re now separating the two and even toying with the idea that criticism of Netanyahu’s policies – not least his determination to keep the occupation of the Palestinian territories rolling on – is actually the pro-Israel position.

The White House is sure to exploit it. The damage is not necessarily permanent. Relations would be improved overnight if Israeli voters dump their prime minister. If not, Netanyahu’s rhetoric is only likely to get more scary. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Chris Mcgreal
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