Israelis Split On Speech Fallout


Tel Aviv — While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his speech Tuesday in Washington, back home in Israel television channels cut into regular programming for the broadcast, and many people gathered at home to watch the much-hyped speech.

Others didn’t bother with the distraction from shopping, costumes and socializing as schools let out the day before the start of the Purim holiday.

What most seemed to agree on is that Netanyahu delivered yet another impressive speech to Congress. What they didn’t agree on was what would the fallout from the speech would be, and whether it was good or bad for Israel.

Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, who is hoping to unseat the prime minister after the March 17 elections, acknowledged Netanyahu’s rhetorical prowess, but he reiterated his argument that it would only backfire on Israel.

“There is no doubt that Netanyahu knows how to speak,” he said during a visit to an Israeli town near the Gaza border. “But let’s be truthful: the speech we heard today, as impressive as it was, won’t stop the Iranian nuclear program. The painful truth is that after the applause, Netanyahu remains alone. Israel is left isolated, and the negotiations with Iran will continue without any Israeli involvement. The speech therefore, is the worst undermining of Israel-U.S. relations.”

Despite Herzog’s comments, the speech seemed to energize Netanyahu’s supporters, who said they were moved by watching him make Israel’s case against Iran on the world stage. “He went to the Congress to get support for Israel from the U.S.,” said Victor Luzon, a retired military man who watched the speech at home over dinner. “I support Netanyahu. He’s a strong and responsible leader who uses sound judgment on security.”

A post on Netanyahu’s Facebook page with an excerpt from the speech garnered nearly 20,000 likes within a few hours after the speech. “A heartfelt and wonderful speech,” wrote a supporter named Moshe Shalom.

Another supporter, Liz Hakum, wrote that the remarks represented “all Jews wherever they are located, but in the Land of Israel specifically. No one should minimize or downplay the strength of the message that was expressed.”

Overall, the speech spurred hundreds of thousands of likes, comments and shares linked to Netanyahu on Israeli social media.

“That’s a very big peak in the interactions — there’s a big buzz,” said Arad Akikous, who analyzes social media in Israel. “The question is whether [the speech] helps him or not. Ultimately, I think everything stayed the same. It didn’t change their minds.”

Netanyahu has gotten plenty of ridicule as well. Hours after the speech, a popular satire show, “Gav Ha’uma,” suggested that Netanyahu’s remarks comparing the threat of Iran to the Holocaust were kitsch by playing a violin as he spoke. On Monday night, another satire show portrayed Netanyahu on a plane and being so filled with hatred for President Barack Obama that when the president makes a last-minute call to ask him to cancel the speech, the prime minister goes into a frenzy that causes the plane to crash into the Capitol building.

Watching the speech at home, Avishai Amir nodded in agreement as Netanyahu made his case against a deal with Iran. But he faulted the prime minister and the Republicans for arranging the speech behind Obama’s back.

As members of Congress rose to give Netanyahu a standing ovation in the middle of the speech, Amir, a retired journalist, said he doubted that the speech would influence Israeli voters because they are focused on issues that are more immediate than Iran.

“The Israeli public is not that dumb,” he said. “[Netanyahu] came to talk about Iran, but he didn’t solve the issues about the cost of living, rising housing prices, and hospitals — the list is long. This is the list that everyone lives. Iran is far away.”

As soon as Netanyahu finished the speech, Israeli broadcasters noted the number of standing ovations — 25 — and the number of mentions of Iran.

Yet there was ample criticism.

“This is a speech that Netanyahu should have made in private month after month,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general to New York. He said that Israel needs to be concerned that support is dropping among Democrats in Congress.

Israel Radio’s political commentator, Chico Menashe, said that the worth of the speech would only be measured in terms of the legislation passed in Congress on Iran. Menashe said Netanyahu’s speech damaged chances that Congress will be able to block a deal with Iran.

“It doesn’t help our interest that this has become a partisan issue,” he said. “There’s also concern that this speech drew attention to Israeli-U.S. relations and not Iran.”

On Channel 1, Dan Margalit, a veteran Israeli political commentator, said that despite the ovations, Netanyahu’s speech was leaving bad blood between himself and Democrats. He said that a quarter of Democrats did not attend, a development he said was unprecedented for an Israeli leader addressing Congress.

Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, told Channel 1 television that the speech “exposed the wide chasm between the U.S. and Israel over Iran.” He said that the approach of the administration is that Iran’s nuclear program can’t be dismantled, only delayed. He predicted that the U.S. is looking to normalize relations with Iran in order to fight ISIS.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, is calling for the entire program to be dismantled. The fight with the U.S., he argued, was only beginning.