Donald Macintyre's US Sketch: Netanyahu's Congress gamble targets voters back home

 

There’s a good old Yiddish (and Hebrew) word for what underlay Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress yesterday: chutzpah. He said at the outset, in tones of injured innocence: “I deeply regret that some have perceived my being here as political.”

Yet his entry could hardly have been more so. Working the room as only Bibi knows how, he gladhanded Congress members and faultlessly greeted their leaders, telling the Democrat Senate leader Harry Reid, recovered from illness: “Senator, it’s good to see you on your feet.”

Naturally, given the current crisis into which he has plunged his country’s relations with the White House, he was careful to thank the President for “all he has done for Israel”. You could almost forget that he was here, two weeks before an unpredictable Israeli election, to sabotage the nail-bitingly delicate negotiations between Iran and the White House on a deal which could be Barack Obama’s greatest legacy. But not for long. For those who like it – and the standing ovations showed that, despite the 50 or so Democrats who stayed away in protest at his politicking with the Republicans, plenty did – this was vintage Bibi.

He didn’t, of course, mention Israel’s own nuclear arsenal. But the many soundbites, no doubt with his Israeli audience much in mind, were studded with cultural and biblical references. He invoked the imminent festival of Purim to recall how Queen Esther had saved the Jewish people from massacre, to ecstatic applause. Israel and the US had no place in the “deadly game of thrones” between Isis and Iran. To those taking comfort in the latter’s hatred for the former, he declaimed: “The enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

He theatrically echoed the warning of Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, seated in the public gallery with Sara Netanyahu: “Never again.” The deal the White House was struggling to conclude was, he said, not “farewell to arms but farewell to arms control”.

No other legislature would host the leader of a foreign power to make a case in direct opposition to its head of government. (Nor, for that matter, would this one give the chance to anyone but an Israeli prime minister.) But there’s nowhere else an organisation like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee wields such influence through the campaign funds it provides to legislators. Even so – and this was the chutzpah – Bibi stretched this privilege to the limit.

This was a political gamble that depends on whether Israeli voters once again buy his Iran rhetoric or, growing tired of all the well-worn comparisons with 1938, begin to think he has badly mishandled the issue. And even that a US-Iran deal might make Israel more, not less, secure.

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