After nearly two months in which the controversial address of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress has dominated the headlines here, Israelis received the long-awaited talk with a mix of reactions that demonstrated just how divided the country is two weeks before heading to national elections.
Much of the prime-time coverage of Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday, which focused on what he calls an impending “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear development program as being negotiated with the US and other Western nations, took a critical view of the premier’s decision to make the speech despite the unprecedented tensions it has sparked with the administration of President Barack Obama.
Israel’s main opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, gave a prime-time speech soon after the televised address, in which he said that Netanyahu had failed to shift policy — or make history as he’d promised — but had simply succeeded in angering the White House.
“There’s no doubt that that Netanyahu knows how to give an address. But his speech today didn’t stop the Iran nuclear program,” Herzog said. “It did not change US policy, and now Israel stands isolated and alone.”
Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat and chief of staff to several Israeli foreign ministers, told Israel’s Channel One that Netanyahu focused his persuasive efforts in the wrong direction.
“It was too bad that this was a speech to Congress, because this talk needed to be held inside the White House,” Pinkas said. “All of the behavior that surrounded this speech has been a bit like a circus, which I don’t think serves Israel’s interests. There aren’t huge differences within Israel in terms of our outlook on Iran’s nuclear program,” he added, as many Israelis are troubled by Iran’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map.” But Netanyahu’s decision to defy the Obama administration’s wishes by accepting the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner has Israelis worried about damaging relations between Jerusalem and Washington, with few gains to show for it.
Ben Caspit, a widely followed analyst for Maariv and al-Monitor, wrote on Twitter that from the point of view of the polls — where Netanyahu is lagging slightly behind the Zionist Union headed by Herzog and Tzipi Livni — the speech to Congress is like the last bullet in a faulty gun. It could misfire — or might not fire at all.
Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent of the Haaretz newspaper, said little if anything new was said by Netanyahu in Washington. “We can sum this up like this — one big nothing,” he said in a tweet. His colleague Chemi Shalev, the U.S. editor of the left-leaning paper, was similarly unimpressed: “Don’t know how speech plays in Congress/America but most Israelis have heard this before and are already bored to tears.”
But not all of Israel’s opinion-makers were critical of Netanyahu, and some supporters called his speech powerful and moving. Some pundits argue that he has a point about the dangers of leaving Iran with so-called break-out capability — the ability to weaponize atomic material in a short period of time.
“Netanyahu is right,” tweeted Moav Vardi, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 news. “In another 10-15 years when this deal expires, Iran can manufacture as many bombs as it wants. To this argument, Obama doesn’t really have an answer.” He also predicted that the speech would not do either of the things Netanyahu’s friends and foes predict: It will neither stop a deal on Iran nor destroy relations with the U.S. Both of those things are beyond the power of a speech to Congress, Vardi noted.
Netanyahu was accompanied on his trip Washington by Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. Although the two men are competitors for votes in the March 17 ballot, Bennett touted his backing of Netanyahu on a critical mission for Israel’s defense, and suggested that those who stayed home were not sufficiently worried about the country’s survival. To the criticism that Netanyahu presented no alternative to the ongoing negotiations, Bennett tweeted that the answer was to increase sanctions against Iran.