As far as the irreverent Israeli media is concerned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to the U.S. Congress is nothing more than an election campaign rally. Israel votes for a new Knesset on March 17, and according to the polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party and his potential coalition partners are vulnerable. But the sight of their prime minister giving a speech in perfect English to applauding American legislators — the last time Netanyahu spoke on Capitol Hill, he received 29 standing ovations — could be just the thing to sway voters on the fence. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation offers him a third appearance in that venue — an honor previously bestowed only on Winston Churchill.
Netanyahu is relying, once more, on his reputation as Mr. Security. He waxes Churchillian in his interviews with Western media, claiming the mantle of the British leader, whose reputation was built on his willingness to confront Hitler before others acknowledged the danger. And in Netanyahu’s speeches, he warns frequently about threats from “radical Islam” and Iran’s nuclear capability. But Israelis appear to be tiring of Iran talk. While security has traditionally been their No. 1 concern, this time, according to the polls, it is the economy.
The past seven years have seen a precipitous rise in housing and food prices as well as cuts in welfare benefits. The cost of living is rising a lot faster than salaries are. The media now report daily on soup kitchens, children living with food insecurity, dual-income professionals who depend on monthly stipends from their parents, pensioners sifting through dumpsters for food. They also report, with clear disapproval, on the ostentatious consumerism of the small newly moneyed class. Netanyahu’s economic policies have helped bring Israel, which once had the narrowest income gap in the industrialized world, to the point that it now has the dubious distinction of having the widest wealth gap among OECD member states.
Israelis are not as willing as Americans are to accept extreme income inequality as a fact of economic life. They remember the socialist orientation of earlier decades and miss many aspects of a shrinking welfare state. When nearly half a million Israelis (out of a population of 8 million) took to the streets for weeks over the summer of 2011, the catalyst for their protest was the cost of living, and the theme was social justice. Two of the leaders of that protest movement are now prominent members of the Labor Party, headed by Isaac “Buji” Herzog. And Labor is doing well in the polls — better than Likud is.
Some Israeli observers read Boehner’s invitation as an intervention in their domestic politics.
“You know what it looks like?” said prominent Israeli journalist Tal Schneider, a former Washington correspondent for Maariv. “It looks as though John Boehner has just joined the Likud campaign.”
She said the invitation elevates Netanyahu’s status over that of Herzog, who will be visiting Washington at the same time and, like the prime minister, will address the annual conference of the Israel lobbying organization AIPAC. “This will make Herzog look like the guy who carries Bibi's suitcase.”
Schneider said the move could influence swing voters to cast their ballots for the man seen to command respect in America — Israel's most important ally — and elevate security over the economy as an election issue.
Barak Ravid, a diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, also saw the campaigning element at work, citing reports that the idea of having Boehner invite Netanyahu to address Congress came from Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Dermer hails from Florida and has been one of Netanyahu's closest political advisers for years. He is also very close to Republican legislators and to Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire and GOP donor who owns Yisrael Hayom, a free daily newspaper that many in Israel describe as the “Bibiton” for its pro-Netanyahu editorial positions. (“Iton” is Hebrew for newspaper.)
From Boehner’s perspective, Netanyahu gives an important bipartisan boost to efforts to pass the Kirk-Menendez bill, which calls for imposing further sanctions against Iran, over the objections of President Barack Obama, who warns that doing so now would torpedo hopes for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. According to a Bloomberg report, the White House retaliated against Boehner by leaking the information that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had broken ranks with Netanyahu and had warned U.S. officials and legislators that the Kirk-Menendez bill would destroy the nuclear negotiations. But Mossad director Tamir Pardo almost immediately denied opposing sanctions against Iran, in a statement issued by the prime minister's office. The Mossad is a branch of the prime minister's office.
Pardo's denial notwithstanding, the rift over Iran between Netanyahu and the Israeli intelligence community is public knowledge. The serving head of the Mossad is not in a position to take a public stance against the prime minister to whom he reports, but there is a rich recent history of retired security and intelligence chiefs vociferously denouncing Netanyahu's saber rattling. Former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin said in 2012 that Netanyahu's head was “clouded by messianic feelings” and that his judgment “could not be trusted.” Meir Dagan, who preceded Pardo as head of the Mossad, called Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iran “stupid,” adding that it would lead to regional war and provide an incentive to Iran to continue its nuclear program.
Senior Israeli military officials have also publicly expressed support for the ongoing Iran negotiations. Most recently, Israel’s chief military intelligence analyst Brig. Gen. Itai Brun said in September that Iran was “abiding by interim agreements” and that he expected the negotiations to lead to a “permanent agreement” on Iran's nuclear program. His views — more upbeat on the nuclear negotiations than those expressed by Netanyahu — are echoed by a long list of prominent figures in the military establishment, including former head of military intelligence Aharon Ze’evi Farkash and past Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff Dan Halutz and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
Israeli voters, when polled, are not really worried about the Palestinians, who remain pretty much out of sight and thus out of mind — the occasional deadly attack notwithstanding. But voters are worried about the economy, and many fear international isolation as a result of their prime minister’s policies. Thus the importance of a rousing, ovation-filled speech to Congress, which could rally his base and enough swing voters, since Netanyahu needs to garner only one or two seats more than Labor in order to be the one invited by the president to form a coalition government. And as Israeli commentators see it, Boehner’s help may be crucial to Netanyahu’s prospects of winning re-election.
Amid his efforts to claim a Churchillian mantle, though, Netanyahu may be forgetting that despite leading Britain through the trials of World War II, Churchill was dumped by the British electorate the first chance it got, in the elections of 1945. His defeat came at the hands of Britain’s Labour Party, whose “win the peace” slogan persuaded voters to prioritize socioeconomic issues.