Cliff May is right about the Netanyahu speech. It was a strong speech, and Congress warmly, even rapturously received Netanyahu, with 30 standing ovations by my count sitting in the House Gallery. The recent disagreement with the White House over President Obama’s Thursday speech if anything made the congressional welcome even friendlier than it would have been otherwise.
Netanyahu’s speech was the capstone on the complex five-act play that took place in Washington this past week, one in which Netanyahu scored a decisive 4–1 victory. Act One took place last Thursday, in the form of Obama’s speech at the State Department. If Obama was expecting huzzahs from the Arab world for his speech, he certainly didn’t get them, and the president himself seemed to have been caught by surprise by the strong negative reaction from the pro-Israel side. Still, the Obama speech hit Netanyahu & Co. hard, and has to be seen as a loss for Netanyahu.
But Obama inexplicably chose to give the speech on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, which gave Netanyahu an opportunity to reply at their joint press appearance on Friday. In the tense, on-camera exchange of views, Netanyahu seemed to take Obama on a visit to Hebrew school, telling him the basic realities of existence in the tough neighborhood of the Middle East.
On Sunday, Obama spoke to the pro-Israel group AIPAC, and while he did not quite walk back his remarks, he clearly tailored them to avoid restating his most controversial points in order to forestall the very real possibility that he would be booed. He was not, but the cheers were not quite at the level that a president who won almost 80 percent of the Jewish vote would expect. Furthermore, the fact that he appeared to have softened things for the AIPAC audience was a sign of weakness in his apparent effort to stage a confrontation with Israel.
Monday night, both Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker John Boehner gave forceful pro-Israel remarks to 12,000 people at AIPAC, and Politico characterized Reid’s speech as an intraparty “rebuke” to the president. The two speeches constituted a bipartisan statement that Obama is out of step with both parties and with both houses of Congress on this issue.
And then this morning came Netanyahu’s impressive speech to a joint assembly of Congress. Unlike Obama, he did not wiggle or waver, but instead gave a powerful defense of Israel as a vibrant democracy and steadfast ally of the U.S. Even an interruption from a Jewish, pro-Palestinian protester gave Netanyahu a chance to shine, as he noted that such protests are allowed in free countries like Israel or the U.S., in contrast to what he called the “farcical parliaments in Tehran or Tripoli.” The ad-lib earned him another one of his many standing ovations.
All of this should have been fairly predictable to the Obama administration when they started this process last week. They knew Netanyahu was coming; that Obama would have to speak to a potentially skeptical if not hostile crowd at AIPAC; and that Netanyahu would likely hit it out of the park in front of the friendly audience in Congress. The only potentially unpredictable element was the Reid speech, as the Senate majority leader might have had some hesitation about rebuking his party’s leader. But even without Reid’s reproach, the events were not aligned in President Obama’s favor as he embarked upon this course of action with last Thursday’s speech. There was no action-forcing event dictating that he give that kind of speech right before Netanyahu’s arrival. Presumably his own State Department would have invited him whenever he wanted to appear.
The policy Obama laid out last Thursday remains worrisome. But the lack of strategic sense that led him to give the speech when he did is truly baffling.