The real importance of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the American Congress could be seen in the cafes of Israel, and homes across the land as it was widely rebroadcast to a domestic audience.
Israelis are profoundly divided going into this general election, and Iran divides them like little else.
Otherwise it is the personality and record of the outgoing prime minister, just ignored by President Obama which thus freed Benjamin Netanyahu, say some critics, to deliver a speech focused entirely on security and the Iranian “danger” that will be lapped up by his core support.
“The speech was a great speech. I support the prime minister on his journey to the States. And it is a very important message that he has to take to the American people,” said one man in Tel Aviv.
“I think that Bibi’s speech cannot help the relationship between Obama and Israel. It can only damage it. I would prefer it if he had not delivered this speech and stayed in Israel,” said another Israeli man.
Voting is close; the 17 March, and Netanyahu, in power since 2009, after a first term from 1996 to 99, shows no sign of a waning appetite for power. He has built a 20-year political career around, among other things, waving the Iranian bogeyman. Now his opponents condemn his methods.
The leader of the opposition and Zionist Union, itself a coalition of different left-wing parties, says Netanyahu has failed across the board, and dismisses the congressional speech outright.
“The Zionist Union has a different approach. We will protect Israel against a nuclear Iran by working together with our allies and with our best friend the United States of America and not against it. And I truly hope that today’s speech will not hurt or hamper that unique unity,” said Isaac Herzog.
Barack Obama rebutted Netanyahu’s speech, making the point he was ready to talk if there was something useful to say
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has not offered any kind of viable alternative,” insisted the president.
By insisting on this path, making such a speech without the nod from the US president, has Netanyahu boosted his and party Likud’s appeal, or undermined it and weakened relations with Israel’s most crucial ally?
“For voters who have voted Likud in the past, and now are not sure, that speech will be an important help for him. Setting the agenda on security issues – I don’t think it clinches the election for him,” says the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guy Lurie.
Complicated arithmetic and coalitions mean Israel’s multi-party politics is complex and prone to flux. Netanyahu stands in the middle, a polariser in a society seemingly more open to division. Come the 15th, the people will decide.
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