JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday generally elicited high marks from commentators here, although some critics said it broke no new ground and served mainly to enhance his reelection prospects two weeks ahead of a crucial vote.
To guard against the possibility that he could engage in “illegal campaigning,” electoral monitors imposed a five-minute delay in the television broadcast of the address, the better to bleep out any domestic partisanship. In the end, there was no such censorship, and the few minutes of lag time did not seem to matter much to Israeli viewers.
Supporters called the speech one of the best of the prime minister’s political career. Others said that it was rousing and demonstrated the support that Israel and Netanyahu enjoy in Congress, but that the address offered no new way to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The speech and its visuals — particularly of standing ovations — could help propel Netanyahu to a historic fourth term as prime minister in upcoming elections. However, it is less likely to derail a possible deal with Iran being negotiated by the United States and five other world powers.
At home, Netanyahu’s address — broadcast at 6 p.m. Israel time — is especially important as the March 17 general election approaches. Polling before the speech indicates an extremely close race, with a strong challenge by opposition leader and Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog and his running mate, former justice minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni.
Responding Tuesday night to Netanyahu’s address, Herzog spoke from a small Israeli town near the Gaza border where residents spent 50 days last summer huddling in bomb shelters during a war with the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
The choice of location was symbolic. Herzog charges that Netanyahu fought an ultimately futile war with Hamas that did not lead to a demilitarized Gaza Strip or a safer Israel.
“I could have been in a different place tonight, but I have chosen to be here,” he said. “I prefer to be here rather than in Washington.”
Herzog said he agrees with Netanyahu that a bad deal with Iran is dangerous and that a nuclear Iran would pose a significant threat to Israel.
“There is no doubt the prime minister knows how to speak well, but the truth is that the speech, as impressive as it was, will not prevent a nuclear Iran and won’t impact a deal that is being drafted — not on its content, nor on its timetable,” he said.
Herzog said Netanyahu should have worked with President Obama, not against him, to get a better deal.
“The painful truth is that after all the applause, Netanyahu is alone and Israel is isolated, and the negotiations will continue without Israel’s input,” Herzog said.
Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party responded to the criticism by asking, disdainfully, whether voters could imagine the challenger receiving such ovations in Washington.
In a statement, Likud said that while Netanyahu “was making an effort to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state . . . Herzog chose to attack the prime minister and his policies just to get a few more votes.”
Overall, Israeli reporters and analysts said Netanyahu did well, that his address was strong and that the prime minister was in his element before the joint meeting of Congress. They noted that Netanyahu performs especially well when he speaks in English, with a conversational fluency that many Israelis envy and admire.
One of Israel’s top political reporters, Channel 2’s Amit Segal, said the majority of Israelis would respond well to the speech.
In a tweet, the popular Israeli political blogger Tal Schneider called Netanyahu’s address “a strong speech” that generated “lots and lots of applause and cheering.”
Chemi Shalev, the U.S. editor for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was less enthusiastic. He tweeted, “Don’t know how speech plays in Congress/America but most Israelis have heard this before and are already bored to tears.”
Natan B. Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who is blogging on the Israeli election, said, “Without a doubt, the speech was a political success.”
The public tension between Netanyahu and Obama ahead of the speech does matter to Israeli voters, who want a close relationship with the United States, which has provided billions of dollars in military aid and unwavering support for Israel at the United Nations.
The images of Netanyahu being greeted by sustained applause and multiple standing ovations is likely to impress voters.
Sachs said, “A video is worth a million words, and the spectacle of Netanyahu delivering a forceful and generally well-crafted speech that most Israelis will agree with is political gold.”
The warm reception Netanyahu received in Congress “drowned out the surrounding noise,” Sachs said.
“Speaking in English, about Israel’s security, is what made Netanyahu’s career to begin with. It remains his best skill,” he said.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister and leader of a hard-line rightist party who sometimes sees Netanyahu as too soft, tweeted that the prime minister “presented a real alternative to the agreement” being negotiated with Iran: holding off on a deal and strengthening sanctions against the country until it agrees to dismantle its nuclear program.
The Obama administration says this maximalist approach will not work. Israeli news media reported that Obama told reporters in Washington after Netanyahu’s speech: “As far as I can tell, there was nothing new. . . . The prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.”
Gilead Sher, who served as chief of staff 15 years ago to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and is now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said the speech might help Netanyahu at the polls.
“It will have a positive impact, and challengers will have to work very hard to compensate for that incredible stage that Netanyahu stood upon and the photo ops,” he said. “All this is not that important in terms of substance, but important when you talk about a campaign.”