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matthew duss

Matthew Duss is president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace

Speaking on Monday to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to lighten the mood over the fierce controversy around the speech he was to deliver to Congress the following day. "You know, never has so much been written about a speech that hasn't been given."

To which I offer in response: Never has one man complained so much about a deal that hasn't yet been agreed.

Let's leave aside the manner in which Mr. Netanyahu's speech was arranged, with his ambassador Ron Dermer, who hails from a prominent family of Florida Republicans, planning the speech in secret with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, and then springing it on the White House the morning after the President's State of the Union address. Instead, let's look at what Mr. Netanyahu's goals were with the speech, and whether he achieved them.

Mr. Netanyahu had two main goals for Tuesday's speech. The first was to marshal opposition to the nuclear deal currently being negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and to bolster support for a new round of sanctions legislation that the administration has warned could scuttle the negotiations. Mr. Netanyahu ran down the list of Iran's offenses (which, to be fair, is long), but this was nothing new. He's issued similar lists before, notably in successive speeches to the United Nations General Assembly, where in 2012 he (in)famously produced a picture of a cartoon bomb to illustrate Iran's proximity to a nuclear weapon.

What the speech lacked was any viable alternative to the policy currently being pursued by the Obama administration and its P5+1 partners. Mr. Netanyahu already had most Republicans on his side. He needed to convince some Democrats.

The early indications are that he fell far short of this. Surveying legislators immediately after the speech, Congressional Quarterly reported that it failed to sway leading Senate Democrats to support new sanctions legislation. "The Netanyahu speech had nothing new substantively, although it was very powerfully stated," Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal told CQ. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was blunter, saying that she was "saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation."

Seeking to capitalize on the speech in order to quickly move forward hawkish legislation empowering Congress to review any proposed deal, Republicans even managed to alienate leading Senate Democrats, including two of the measure's co-sponsors, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who said he would vote against any effort to rush consideration of the measure.

The second goal was to boost his re-election chances in Israel, where voters will go to the polls on Mar. 17. Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party is currently in a neck-and-neck race with the Zionist Camp led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. The timing of the speech has come in for a great deal of criticism from the political center and the left, with the speech being aired with a time delay so as to block out any blatantly political messages. Despite protests by Mr. Netanyahu's defenders that there was nothing overtly political about the speech, Mr. Netanyahu himself effectively put these claims to rest by tweeting out a link to a live stream of the speech… on his campaign website.

Elements of Israel's security establishment were particularly critical of the speech because of the potential damage to Israel's hugely important strategic relationship with its most important patron, the United States. Among these was Mr. Netanyahu's own national security adviser Yossi Cohen, who reportedly said that he wished the speech were not taking place because of the appearance of interference by Mr. Netanyahu in U.S. domestic politics. (The Israeli embassy rushed to assure reporters that Mr. Cohen believed no such thing, bringing to mind Claud Cockburn's line, "Never believe anything until it has been officially denied.")

For some parts of the Israeli electorate, however, particularly Mr. Netanyahu's right wing base, the fact that the speech has been so heavily criticized just adds to its, and his, appeal. "With his speech, Netanyahu has managed to frame the national conversation around an issue that he dominates, and on which the opposition simple doesn't have a clear agenda," wrote Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf. For Mr. Netanyahu, Sheizaf continued, "these kinds of confrontations are a feature, not a bug. They are part of a political strategy that builds on the intense emotions that such moments produce."

As with any election, the only opinion poll that really matters is the one on election day. Given both the criticism and praise Mr. Netanyahu has received from Israelis over the speech, at the moment it seems like a wash, so I'd give him a grade of C. As for the first, marshalling opposition to an Iran deal, at the moment that's clearly an F. But maybe I should mention a third goal of Mr. Netanyahu's speech: Getting people to talk about Netanyahu. In that, he surely got an A.

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