As for the damage control, as others have detailed, the “tension” started long before the speech invitation and can be seen as a desirable state of affairs for President Obama, who must discredit Netanyahu and whip up Democrats in order to give away the store to Iran. Netanyahu opened with a line no prime minister has ever had to utter: “My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both.” He repeated that it was not his intention to inject partisanship into the U.S.-Israeli relationship. (“I regret some people have misperceived the issue.”) and went out of his way to flatter Congress, on which his hopes for support reside. (He noted his “boundless gratitude” to Congress, Democrats and Republicans.) The relationship with Obama is not repairable, but he can, I think, separate congressional Democrats from the White House and that his speech will help to do. (Indeed the entire conference which paired Democrat with Republican senators and congressman was an exercise in some respect to forge a bipartisan bond and isolate the White House.) He told the crowd it was his “moral obligation” to speak out against a deal that could threaten Israel’s survival.
Netanyahu was also there to issue a warning of sorts: Israel will never again put its fate in the hands of others. In reviewing the history of instances in which the United States and Israel disagreed (the 1967 war, destruction of the Syrian reactor), he was not only saying we weathered the storms and our relationship grew stronger (“There is a reason I mention all this. Despite occasional disagreements, the relationship grew stronger and stronger through the decades.”). He was also reminding the administration that Israel will do what it must, even when the United States disagrees. And he offered some unsolicited advice: “No one makes alliances with the weak.” Unfortunately, Obama does not grasp this essential point.
Netanyahu’s speech was emotionally-laden and forcefully delivered, but the big event is tomorrow. Secretary of State John Kerry revealed how nervous the administration is, publicly saying that details of the talks shouldn’t be disclosed. Indeed, the worse thing would be for the administration to have the country and Congress find out how much he has given away. That, I suspect, is part of the reason for its fit over Netanyahu’s speech.
Before Netanyahu spoke, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke. If the brief welcome (about half the delegates stood) and infrequent applause is any indication national security adviser Susan Rice will face a room of icy stares. Power tried to assure the crowd the administration will never allow Iran to have a bomb. But frankly, many in Congress and in the country, not to mention in Arab countries and Israel, believes the president on this point. Moreover it does not say we would stop Iran from having a breakout capacity, which is the nub of the problem. To the contrary, the incessant mention of an actual weapon only heightens concerns among critics of the president. Power went through a history of horrible genocidal crimes against humanity including the Holocaust. But as someone who wrote a book about the “duty to defend” victims and who serves a president who has presided over the slaughter of 200,000 Syrians, it reeked of hypocrisy. She had a thankless task and delivered a barely passable speech.
More interesting were the remarks of former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, former Canadian foreign affairs minister John Baird and Czech President Milos Zeman who were eloquent and clear-headed in talking about the Iran threat and their countries’ ties to Israel. Zeman declared at one point that as President John Kennedy once declared “Ich bin ein Berliner,” today we should all be saying, “I am a Jew.” He then repeated it in Hebrew. He added that for Jews one sentence is key: “Never again shall we march like sheep to slaughter.” And in describing the threat of terrorism he said, “I always say Islamic terrorism.” Baird was equally eloquent and made the sound point that Arab countries are now as concerned about Iran as Israel is. One wonders what would have happened had the United States been blessed with a leader like any one of the three.
One came away today with the sense there almost isn’t any U.S. president. World leaders, at least some of them, get it. Israel will act alone if it must, but is relying on Congress. And Obama? No one is relying on him at this point, and his greatest fear is that we might find out he gave Iran a glide path to become a nuclear power.