Netanyahu's Real Targets: President Obama, and the Israeli Swing Voter

In an impassioned speech, the Israeli prime minister makes the case that Iran is ruled by very bad men. But we got that.

Well, Benjamin Netanyahu certainly knows how to give a speech. But we already knew that.

Netanyahu is eloquent in outlining the terrible crimes of the Iranian regime. But we already knew that.

Netanyahu is committed to the survival of the Jewish people, and the Jewish state. But we already knew that.

Netanyahu loves America. But we already knew that.

Netanyahu believes that Iran is playing the American administration for suckers. But we already knew that.

Netanyahu doesn't have a plausible, realistic plan to keep Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon. But we already knew that.

A number of quick observations about a surreal day in Washington:

1. The speech had two targets, and neither one was Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader. The first set of targets consisted of President Obama, his secretary of state, John Kerry, and Kerry's chief Iran negotiator, Wendy Sherman. Netanyahu called them all out, though not by name, for being hopelessly, haplessly naive in the face of evil. "I don’t believe that Iran’s radical regime will change for the better after this deal," Netanyahu said. "Would Iran be less aggressive when sanctions are removed and its economy is stronger? If Iran is gobbling up four countries right now while it’s under sanctions, how many more countries will Iran devour when sanctions are lifted? Would Iran fund less terrorism when it has mountains of cash with which to fund more terrorism?" President Obama has argued that a nuclear deal may help turn Iran into a more responsible international actor. Netanyahu thinks otherwise.

The second target was the conservative portion of the Israeli electorate, which has, like much of the rest of Israel, grown tired of Netanyahu. He will be returned to power on March 17 if he can convince a large enough number of Likud-oriented voters to stick with his party. If they move to other right-wing parties, Israel's president, Ruvi Rivlin, who loathes Netanyahu, will be presented with an opportunity to call for the formation of a national-unity government, or even a government led outright by the center-left Zionist Camp party. Right-wing voters in Israel aren't upset by Netanyahu's thumb-in-the-eye approach to President Obama. Many of them actually like it, and they will like to see that Netanyahu is more-or-less correct when he argues that Congress has Israel's back.

2. Congress has Israel's back. Nancy Pelosi was very upset after the speech—she thought it condescending—but the reaction to the speech from the floor of the House would certainly convince Israeli voters that Netanyahu has maintained good relations with the legislative branch. The boycott advocated by some left-leaning groups largely failed. About 90 percent of Congress showed up for the speech. The notable exceptions: a meaningful number of Jewish members, and a large number of African-American members. It is unprecedented for Jewish members of Congress to boycott a speech by an Israeli prime minister, and it is a bad omen. It is also unprecedented for so many members of the Congressional Black Caucus (which is quite pro-Israel) to stay away. This is on the Israeli government, and, specifically, its ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer (the architect of this speech) to fix.

3. Netanyahu doesn't profess to understand how negotiations work. In order for negotiations to succeed, all parties have to agree to terms. Netanyahu believes that terms can be imposed on Iran, as terms were imposed on Japan after World War II. But those terms were imposed after a total military defeat. Short of a total military defeat of Iran, the West will not get from Iran all that Netanyahu wants. Asking Congress to link sanctions relief to broader issues, such as Iran's sponsorship of terrorism, and its various regional aggressions, is a way to blow up these negotiations for good. Iran will not agree to these terms, and will walk away. And then it will be free—or freer, at least—to move to nuclear breakout.
4. Netanyahu may—may—have succeeded in putting Obama on the back foot. Obama has a very hard job here. He has to convince American legislators that reaching an agreement with a terror-sponsoring regime that is known to cheat on nuclear matters (and, by the way, also calls for the annihilation of Israel, a country the majority of Americans support) will make the world a safer place. That's a difficult thing to do, especially when one way to actually reach a deal, American negotiators believe, is to "preserve the dignity" of the Iranian side. There's a reasonable chance that this speech will be forgotten in a month. There's also a reasonable chance that Netanyahu just made Obama's mission harder.