Why BIBI Should Focus on the Economy and not Iran
Iran. Nuclear. Deal - Netanyahu's three favourite words
NEW DELHI: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the US Congress on Tuesday. The speech was the flashpoint in deteriorating Israel-US relations, with US President Obama -- who hadn’t invited Netanyahu in the first place -- staying away.
Firstly, the speech was fairly predictable. An hour long and punctuated by standing ovations (26 times, if you’re counting), the speech served as an election ad for PM Netanyahu as Israel heads to the polls this month. The number of times certain words were repeated in the speech tells you what it was about, and what message Netanyahu wanted to deliver to Obama, Congress and most importantly, voters back home in Israel. The word “Iran” was said 107 times; “nuclear” -- 46 times, “deal” -- 40 times, and “Israel” -- 39 times. In short, the speech was about the Iran Nuclear Deal being BAD, for Israel and by extension, the rest of the world.
Obama was not impressed. The US President criticised the Israeli Prime Minister for not being able to offer any alternative, with Democrats and the White House angry that the speech was made possible in the first place (Netanyahu was invited by Republicans, with many senior Democrat leaders skipping his address to Congress).
Even faced with criticism, Netanyahu refused to cancel the speech. Netanyahu tweeted, “I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the President but to speak up for the very survival of my country.”
Critics however allege that the trip has more to do with Netanyahu’s own survival. The elections, this March, are being held two years ahead of schedule, with Netanyahu having fired two key cabinet ministers, the finance minister, Yair Lapid, leader of the large centrist Yesh Atid party, and the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Hatnuah party. Livni, along with running mate Isaac Herzog, now head the Labour Party that is offering stiff competition to Netanyahu and his Likud party.
Netanyahu seems to believe that if he is able to successfully trump up national security as a key issue, he may be able to return for a historic fourth term. Israelis generally agree with Netanyahu’s position on Iran, but there is a level of caution in reference to alienating the country’s closest ally -- the US. This dilemma was captured by the headline of a front-page column in Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, “You’re Right, But Don’t Go.”
Columnist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote, “Precisely because the Iranian threat is so important, precisely because you’re right, precisely because the things you would tell Congress are important — don’t go. Because doing this would hurt the very issue that is the reason for your trip.”
Israel’s contending Labour Party has been quick to criticize Netanyahu’s move, with Herzog telling the Washington Post, “When I am prime minister, you won’t see us involved” between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. “Let the American people decide. It is embarrassing, this debate.”
In fact, Netanyahu’s decision to push through with the speech perhaps reflects his desperation. Keen on ensuring that national security remains in the headlines (and thus, on the voters minds as they head to the polls), Netanyahu has managed to obfuscate the key election issue this time around. The economy.
In a recent poll conducted by the Knesset Channel, 56 percent of Israelis said that they will vote based on socioeconomic issues, compared to 30 percent on Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu is widely perceived to be responsible for the skyrocketing cost of living.
It is this economic dissatisfaction that has Netanyahu’s party, according a Knesset Channel poll, winning just 21 seats. The main centre-left competitor, the Zionist Camp, was polling at 24.
In short, Israelis agree with Netanyahu’s position on the deal, but the trumping up of the issue may not pay off for two reasons a) it alienates the US, and b) the realisation that Israel is going to have little to no say in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e., the US, Russia, China, UK and France, plus Germany). So why bother?