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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly knows how to deliver a speech to an American political audience. Fifty Democrats, including the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus, chose to not to attend the Prime Minister’s speech out of protest, deeming it a violation of political protocol and bad form by John Boehner and the GOP.
Those in attendance witnessed a rousing and compelling speech from a foreign leader desperate to stop the nuclear deal being negotiated by Iran, the United States and several prominent EU nations. But in the end, did it actually matter? Did it have an effect on U.S. domestic or international policy? And how will Netanyahu’s gambit play back home? The speech left more questions than answers.
A Joint Session with Two Goals
Netanyahu had two goals in delivering this speech and likely only accomplished one of them. While the Prime Minister certainly cares about the safety and security of Israel, his more pressing concern was getting re-elected, and with Israeli elections coming on March 17th he’s in the fight of his political life.
The speech to Congress Tuesday morning hit Israeli airwaves in prime time, and the images of foot stomping, cheering and clapping members of the U.S. Congress will undoubtedly help him at home. However, his secondary goal of disrupting or ending the Iran nuclear deal currently being negotiated by the U.S. and the P5+1 coalition of nations is not going to happen. Iran will eventually acquire the technology to create nuclear weapons, and the only way to prevent that from happening is to go to war.
So the other option, according to the negotiators, is to incentivize Iran to use their nuclear technology for medical and energy purposes. The United States has scuttled several reasonable Iran nuclear deals over the years but there seems to a commitment to this one. International prestige and reputation is on the line for the administration and if nothing is accomplished by the March 31st deadline, John Kerry and the President will do everything in their power to make sure to fault lays with Iran not the U.S.
Influencing People but Losing Friends
According to AIPAC member and South Carolina Democrat Bakari Sellers, any negative effects on U.S. and Israeli relations from Netanyahu’s speech will be laid squarely at the Prime Minister’s feet in the United States.
Sellers brings a unique perspective to the Netanyahu’s speech. In the early 2000s when AIPAC - the most powerful American based lobbying organization for Israel - engaged in serious outreach to the American evangelical and African American community, Sellers was part of their recruitment wave.
Sellers is African American and he is not Jewish, however he joined AIPAC while he was student council president at Morehouse College and continued to remain committed and active with the organization while serving as one of the youngest members of the South Carolina State House and as the 2014 Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor in South Carolina.
“I thought Netanyahu’s speech at the [AIPAC] Policy Conference yesterday was better than the speech he gave today,” says Sellers. “[Yesterday] his speech was hopeful and optimistic, there was a level of uncertainty – I’m not sure what my level of expectation was. Yesterday morning he went above and beyond, I thought he was going the spike the football. He parlayed what many hoped to be true, that Israel is an American value. Today his speech was wrapped in a total neglect for new ideas.”
Seller’s comments are echoed throughout much of Washington D.C. as after Netanyahu’s speech the conversation moved beyond the shady politics of how the Prime Minister was invited into actual policy. Despite the popularity of Netanyahu amongst Americans (who actually know who he is) the very nature of his speech today implied a type of disdain or questioning of American intelligence and international fealty that was unprecedented. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who left the chamber before Netanyahu’s speech released the following statement:
That is why, as one who values the U.S. – Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the Prime Minister’s speech – saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.
The implication that the United States and five other nations don’t really know what they’re doing or are intentionally harming Israel was not lost on Obama Security Advisor Susan Rice, who just days after calling Netanyahu’s impending speech “destructive” spoke to AIPAC and set the proper tone, according to Sellers.
“The woman who stole the show – who walked into an audience that was definitely cold was Susan Rice. [She was] was amazing last night. She was so resolute and so clear. Barack Obama has done a lot for Israel. I have no problem supporting the president and supporting Israel.”
He went on to say that while Netanyahu’s speech today was a chastisement of an ally, Rice went out of her way to assuage fears when speaking to almost 75,000 AIPAC members.
“The goal in mind is to protect the interest of Israel and the United States. She struck a tone that reminded me of Dr. King and the network of mutuality," said Sellers. "That’s what I got from that speech. It wasn’t black or white or Democratic and Republican. These are the facts, this is what we’re attempting to do, and what we’ve done and [we have] crippled Iran right now with sanctions.”
Bend, But Don’t Break
Ultimately Netanyahu’s speech may alienate him from some on the left in the United States, but it won’t fundamentally alter the foreign policy relationship between Israel and the United States. Israel will still be the primary beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid, and will still retain U.S. support in just about any of their actions in the region. However the meddling of Netanyahu in the affairs of not just the U.S. but of other nations in this deal will not be forgotten.
He better hope he scored a victory in the upcoming elections because outside of Israel he has a lot fewer friends than before this speech.