March 3, 2015 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.
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 under-publicized 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.
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.