That was Netanyahu’s goal in addressing Congress. And so far, he’s been surprisingly successful
Had anyone told me a week ago that a single speech, however eloquent, could shift the entire tenor of America’s public debate over the nuclear negotiations with Iran, I’d have considered him a fantasist. Yet judging by the reactions of many American pundits who weren’t previously anti-Obama or pro-Netanyahu, that’s exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last Tuesday did. And on this particular issue, American public opinion matters greatly.
To understand why, it helps to read some of those pundits’ reactions. Take, for instance, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who has close ties with the Obama Administration and has served in the past as a conduit for the administration’s anti-Netanyahu leaks. Despite criticizing many aspects of the speech, Ignatius concluded that it had significantly influenced the debate. “What Netanyahu did Tuesday was raise the bar for Obama,” he wrote. “Any deal that the administration signs will have to address the concerns Netanyahu voiced. Given what’s at stake in the Middle East, that’s probably a good thing.”
And here’s liberal Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi: “Maybe President Obama didn’t hear anything new when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress,” she wrote. “But I did. And I bet I’m not the only American who appreciated a leader who used simple, direct language to tell his audience exactly what he thinks about a complex subject. Americans heard Netanyahu make a powerful case for why a still unfinalized nuclear weapons agreement with Iran is a bad deal … With the Iran negotiations, Obama and Kerry wanted to present Americans with a deal, tell them how good it is and expect them to accept their word. Netanyahu got in the way of that strategy.”
Or consider this apology from popular blogger Jazz Shaw, who publicly opposed the speech before it was given. “I was wrong … when I supposed that this speech was a pointless, partisan, political ploy,” he wrote. In reality, it proved “one of the most powerful speeches which I have seen delivered in that chamber in the modern era.”
But why do such reactions matter? After all, the speech didn’t change any minds in the Obama Administration, and they’re the ones negotiating the deal. Nor did it sway the only reference group Obama cares about – his diehard cheerleaders in places like the New York Times.
The answer is that Netanyahu wasn’t trying to influence Obama or his cheerleaders; he knows they’re a lost cause. His target was Congress – whose members not only have significant power to influence the talks, but are also generally responsive to the broader public mood.
Congress is currently considering various bills aimed at influencing the nuclear negotiations. These include the Kirk-Menendez bill, which seeks to pressure Iran into further concessions by enacting suspended sanctions that would take effect if no agreement were reached by June 30, and the Corker-Menendez bill, which would require any Iran deal to be submitted to Congress for approval. The problem is that Obama will certainly veto any such bill, and overriding his veto requires a two-thirds majority of Congress. In other words, it requires significant support from Obama’s own Democratic Party, since Republicans don’t control two-thirds of either house.
But for members of any party to buck their own president’s signature foreign policy initiative is extremely rare; it would essentially be a vote of no confidence in their party’s leader. As such, it would be a very difficult thing for any Democrat to do, despite the real concerns many have about the emerging deal with Iran.
Thus achieving the requisite veto-proof majority is possible under only one condition: if Democratic senators and congressmen sense strong concerns about the deal from their own constituents. Because unlike Obama, they’ll be up for reelection in another few years, and therefore, unlike him, they must take public opinion into account.
And that’s where Netanyahu’s speech comes in. Previously, many Americans had heard little about the nuclear negotiations beyond the administration’s talking points. Now, even non-conservative media are suddenly posing tough questions about the emerging agreement. And this growing public skepticism is vital to creating a critical mass of Democratic congressmen willing to defy Obama over the deal.
The irony is that the speech could never have had the impact it did had Obama not turned it into an excuse for a very public rift with Israel. It was only because of the massive media coverage his outraged reaction generated that so many Americans paid attention to the speech’s contents. As Vennochi put it, “with that, people who normally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about nuclear weapons and the best way to keep a country like Iran from building an arsenal of them suddenly wanted to hear what Netanyahu had to say.” In other words, that public rift the administration was a necessary price of the speech’s success.
Was it a price worth paying? If the speech succeeds in generating the veto-proof congressional majority needed to stop a bad deal, then yes. Admittedly, it’s not yet certain the requisite votes will materialize: Though four more Democratic senators have joined Corker-Menendez just since last Tuesday, another three are still needed.
What is certain, however, is that focusing American public attention on the emerging deal’s flaws represents the only possible chance of getting those votes, and thus of influencing the deal. The oft-proposed alternative – that “quiet diplomacy” could persuade Obama to take Israel’s concerns into account – is fatuous: Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have tried that tactic for months, and as their surprising public support for Netanyahu’s speech shows, it’s gotten them exactly nowhere.
In short, Netanyahu’s speech represented the only possible alternative to two terrible options: a bad deal that would let Iran go nuclear, or an Israeli attack on Iran in defiance of the entire world. Given the awfulness of those options, it would have been irresponsible not to try any third way that offered any chance of succeeding.
And however improbably, it turns out Netanyahu’s third way actually offered a good chance. Judging by the results so far, his speech has had exactly the impact he intended it to have.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on March 9, 2015