Did Netanyahu make the case?

CNN Opinion asked a range of contributors to assess the impact of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are theirs.

Obama administration fumbled

The Obama administration effectively has had a six-week public tantrum as it tried to stop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from addressing a joint meeting of Congress. Now we know why. Netanyahu destroyed the administration's argument in favor of signing a nuclear deal with Iran.

We've continuously heard from the Obama administration that no deal is better than a bad deal. Anyone watching Netanyahu's speech with even the slightest objectivity was, at the very least, left questioning whether this is that bad deal.

The Obama White House fumbled this one badly. By fighting this speech so long, so hard and so publicly, the White House elevated its profile.

With some regularity, foreign leaders are invited to address Congress. Most of the time, the majority of us don't pay much attention. This time was different. I suspect that many Americans, like me, were glued to the TV. What I heard Netanyahu say greatly worried me. I have a feeling I'm not alone.

Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, was national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign.

The speech backfired

Tuesday's speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is here to warn against a deal with Iran just two weeks before the Israeli elections, clearly backfired if the goal was to shore up political support for Israel.

Since the nation was founded in 1948, one of the biggest political virtues for champions of Israel within the United States has been the way in which support has cut across partisan lines. Even after what has taken place in recent months, some of the most contentious in U.S.-Israeli relations, this still remains true.

But Tuesday's speech strains that bipartisan support more than almost anything else that has happened in recent years. Fifty-five members of Congress boycotted the speech, which some have dismissed as an election stunt and others call a direct slam against President Barack Obama as his administration tries to work out an agreement over nuclear weapons with Iran.

Worst of all for Israel, the speech is creating the strong impression that there is now a partisan alliance between the GOP and the Israeli leadership. In the current age when partisan polarization is so strong on Capitol Hill, this perception could become devastating. According to a recent Pew poll, 53% of Americans reported positive views of Netanyahu, with 21% being unfavorable. Only 28% of Democrats saw him favorably, with 35% registering unfavorable ratings.

What comes next will be important. It is clear that there is growing pressure within Israel for a different kind of political posture and different political leaders. As Jonathan Alter has recounted in a fascinating piece for The Daily Beast, there are many figures, including those on the Israeli right, who are unhappy with Netanyahu's brazen moves.

The good news for Israel here in the United States is that American Jews still remain overwhelmingly Democratic and they are reluctant to switch over to the GOP (despite Republicans having courted their vote for decades). American Jews remain pretty liberal on most domestic issues. This means that as Republicans become more ardent in their support for Israel, the Democratic Party is not likely to switch its basic position on this alliance dramatically.

The biggest question will be whether Netanyahu's critics in Israel can build the kind of coalition that would challenge the Prime Minister, or create sufficient pressure on him to change his tactics, and revitalize the bipartisan foundation of support the nation has enjoyed in the United States for decades.

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of the new book "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society."

A brilliant speech, but no solution?

This was a very good speech from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's perspective. It was brilliantly written, and it was brilliantly delivered. It combined intelligence with emotional appeal, and he tied it very powerfully to a defense of the existence of the Jewish people. So I found it very moving.

But the problem is the speech didn't provide us with a sense of an alternative to a deal. The other countries that have signed on to the negotiations -- Russia and China, for example -- want a deal.

And the current sanctions are going to get very leaky soon. In fact, under sanctions, Iran has been able to build about 19,000 centrifuges. So imagine the next 10 years with no deal -- where will Iran be?

I would imagine that with no deal, Iran would get much closer to where Netanyahu doesn't want it to be.

Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN's Global Public Square.

Netanyahu has a fantasy, not a plan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress on Tuesday that the emerging nuclear deal would "pave Iran's path to the bomb" by allowing Iran even a limited, transparent nuclear energy program. But he failed to offer a realistic alternative. Imposing unrealistic demands on the talks could blow up the best chance in decades to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Many share Netanyahu's concerns and would rather completely eliminate Iran's enrichment capability. But as President Barack Obama said Monday, "There's no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program."

In this context, Netanyahu's plan to walk away from this deal and try to get a better one is no plan at all. It is a fantasy, and it's a dangerous one because it would sacrifice a good deal for one that does not exist. As national security adviser Susan Rice said Monday, "We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal."

So let's be realistic. If the Iran talks fall apart, we can expect new U.S. sanctions on Iran, and Iran would accelerate its nuclear program. The risk of U.S. military action would increase, adding fuel to the fire in the Middle East. The United States, Israel and the world would be much better off with a good deal that prevents an Iranian nuclear bomb. This is a historic opportunity, and we must not waste it.

Tom Z. Collina is the director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global peace and security foundation.

Obama's biggest problem is not Netanyahu

What an odd sight -- the Prime Minister of the state of Israel striding into the House chamber to address a joint meeting of Congress for all the world looking more popular than the President of the United States. Not a page from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but rather the fine PR work of a White House that ought to know better.

Perhaps House Speaker John Boehner should not have invited Benjamin Netanyahu to speak. Perhaps Netanyahu should have declined. But in the face of those two realities, the White House, far from ignoring the event, went berserk. Sunday shows. AIPAC. Interviews with the President. Protests. Background sniping. In so doing, they only demeaned themselves and blew L'Affaire Bibi into the spotlight.

And what of the speech itself? It was finely executed, a litany of Iran's depredations, and a clear explanation of the perils of a deal that, to paraphrase Netanyahu, paves the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Ironically, the terms of the deal are ones that even Obama would once have opposed: Keeping uranium enrichment capacity; keeping a heavy water reactor; writing off military dimensions of the program; a 10- to 15-year sunset. ... But now the White House insists that this deal is the only way to avoid war.

Obama's biggest problem is not Israel's Prime Minister -- it is his own willingness to concede every point to skilled Iranian negotiators. In seeking to defend Iran from criticism, and desperately trying to close a flawed deal, the President has been at the heart of all the problems with Congress, the Gulf and Israel. All Netanyahu did was notice.

Danielle Pletka is senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The good and bad Netanyahu

In his speech before Congress, we saw both the good and the bad in Netanyahu.

The good is his eloquent ability to make the case against Iran. The bad is his tunnel vision, almost messianic in nature, that he must save Israel.

His eloquence is important in an era of personalized leadership, but it is superficial. His singular focus on Iran, and his avoidance, even dismissal, of the domestic agenda in Israel only two weeks before a general election is a mistake.

Most Israelis no longer want to be guided by fear when they cast their vote. Most Israelis want to be able to hold their leaders accountable for election promises that they can deliver. Most Israelis understand that without the United States we cannot take on Iran successfully.

The Israeli democratic process is too fragmented and too polarized. To win votes one must gather them from your own camp, not from other camps who are too ideologically far away. Netanyahu is mobilizing the right-wing hawks around the threat from Iran, ignoring the deteriorating domestic situation.

Netanyahu came to Washington not to save Israel but to save himself; he should have stayed at home and addressed the concerns that trouble most Israelis.

Reuven Y. Hazan is chairman of the political science department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Was Netanyahu's speech worth the cost?

Was it worth it? That's the question hanging in the air after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, made at the cost of damage to America's bipartisan support for Israel.

Netanyahu made a strong case about the risks of a "bad deal" with Iran. There is no disputing that the Islamic republic of Iran has sought to spread its Islamic revolution and to widen its footprint across the Middle East; no disputing that it has launched terrorist attacks from South America to Africa, and that it now holds powerful political sway over four Arab capitals.

Israel's paranoia, fueled by continuous threats from Tehran, is not imaginary. Netanyahu's ominous warning that there is no greater threat than the marriage of nuclear weapons and militant Islam is hard to dispute.

He also reminded us of Iran's troubling track record on its nuclear program. To this day U.N. inspectors say Iran is blocking them. Netanyahu is right that Iran cannot be trusted.

What to do then? Netanyahu has been accused of wanting war rather than any nuclear deal. He denied that. "The alternative to a bad deal is not war," he said. "It is a much better deal."

It's not clear how Netanyahu expects it to come about, except by negotiating much more forcefully, by not giving in to an Iran that urgently needs sanctions relief.

It was a good, strong speech. But it came at a perilous price in Israel's crucial relations with the United States.

The tally, showing if it was worth the cost, will emerge in the outcome of talks with Iran, and in the success of efforts to repair the damage Netanyahu inflicted on America's bipartisanship support for Israel.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review and a former CNN producer and correspondent.

Strongest case against an Iran deal

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have been wiser to delay his appearance until after the Israeli election on March 17, his speech Tuesday to the U.S. Congress should be required reading for anyone who cares about peace in the Middle East.

The United States and its negotiating partners are moving into the final stages of possibly reaching a nuclear deal with Iran. Forceful but not bombastic, Netanyahu laid out the clearest and strongest case against the deal of any public leader so far.

Iran, he argues, remains the biggest terrorist state in the Middle East and already dominates four Arab capitals -- Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. The regime cannot be trusted.

The deal shaping up, Netanyahu warns, would allow Tehran to keep a huge nuclear infrastructure that it would almost certainly try to build up further through cheating. In about a decade, the deal would lift all restrictions. It is foolhardy, he argues, to expect a regime that has held power for 36 years to give up its grip -- or its ambitions -- in the next 10.

The Obama administration sharply disagrees with Netanyahu's assessment. Fair enough. But in coming days, the President must lay out his case just as clearly and strongly, as his top advisers began to do Monday at the AIPAC conference. Armed with both arguments, the American people -- along with the Congress -- will then have a reasoned basis upon which to render a judgment. Democratic peoples thrive when they can hear all sides.

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Netanyahu hands bat to Obama critics

Despite the hype, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still managed to deliver a speech that was both magisterial and audacious. Pulling few punches, Netanyahu went to Washington's epicenter and told assembled lawmakers that the United States' president, Barak Obama, is negotiating a terrible deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The speech is likely to have an impact in three important ways:

First, Netanyahu just made the deal that the Obama administration is trying to conclude all the more difficult. The Israeli leader pointed to some of the emerging deal's core problems: first, leaving much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure in place, and second, sunset provisions that would remove remaining restrictions after a decade.

In doing so, Netanyahu gave the Obama administration's biggest domestic critics a huge bat with which to club the president and his team. More fundamentally, the Israeli leader was effective in portraying the Islamic Republic not as a potential partner, but as the source of the region's greatest ills.

Second, the sheer audaciousness of Netanyahu delivering a speech in the capital while Secretary of State John Kerry is negotiating with Iranian envoys in Switzerland is likely to render impossible any future modus vivendi between President Obama and the Israeli prime minister.

For the past six years, Obama and Netanyahu have been locked into an unending cycle of clashes followed by temporary truces. Tuesday, Netanyahu seemingly confirmed the White House's deepest suspicions that the Israeli leader has long been working to manipulate partisan American politics against the president. From hereon in, the mutual hostility between the president and Netanyahu is likely to intensify, while self-restraint will certainly diminish.

Third, despite Netanyahu's declaration that his speech was not political, everyone recognizes that it was. But it will most likely help his re-election bid when Israeli voters go to the polls in just two weeks. Many Israelis will recognize that Netanyahu once again antagonized the leader of Israel's best friend, and possibly did long-term damage to Israel's bipartisan standing in America. But Obama is not very popular in Israel, nor is he seen as sufficiently resolute in his willingness to protect America's interests, let alone Israel's.

The image likely to endure in Israel -- one certain to be replayed in campaign ads for the next two weeks -- will be that of American congressional leaders, Republicans and Democrats, warmly embracing the Israeli prime minister who came to Washington, despite many naysayers, and blasted the nuclear talks the administration is conducting with Iran.

Call it chutzpah or courage, it is likely to win Netanyahu further support on March 17.

Robert M. Danin is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Alternative to deal is not war, but better deal

Leaving aside the controversy surrounding whether it was a good decision for Benjamin Netanyahu to accept the invitation to speak to Congress, Netanyahu delivered a powerful speech. Anyone that heard the speech would have difficulty contradicting the substantive points made by the prime minister.

Beginning with a detailed description of Iran's terrible record of regional behavior, Netanyahu laid out the problematic aspects of the emerging deal, flaw by flaw. He reiterated that militant Islam with nuclear weapons is a recipe for disaster.

Indeed, in the immediate reactions, detractors were left with very little to say, beyond the weak argument of "but what is the alternative?" But Netanyahu actually answered this quite clearly: the alternative is not war, it's a better deal. He laid out the problems with the deal, so that improvements can still be made.

In fact, perhaps the only really new element of the speech was what Netanyahu said with regard to the "sunset provision" of the deal: restrictions on Iran cannot be lifted until Iran fulfills 3 conditions: stops aggression in the Middle East; stops supporting terrorism around the world; and stops threatening to annihilate Israel, the only Jewish state.

What more do detractors think Netanyahu should be offering? CNN in its immediate coverage quoted an administration official as saying: "Netanyahu: all rhetoric, no action." What does that even mean? Does the administration want Israel to act?

A better idea would be to take the arguments laid out one by one, and start thinking about how the P5+1 might begin to address the issues at the bargaining table when it is facing Iran.

Emily Landau is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, where she is also director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project.

Netanyahu speech a direct challenge to Obama

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress was primarily aimed at strengthening his position in the upcoming Israeli elections and forcing the American administration -- and Congress -- to take a tougher line in the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. But the speech's most significant effect may be in exacerbating the partisan and generational divide that has increasingly come to define Israel's place in American politics.

Netanyahu's speech plays directly into the very politicization of Israel that he opened by decrying. The speech was a direct challenge to President Barack Obama. While Netanyahu praised President Obama's support for Israel, he directly challenged the president's principal second-term foreign policy initiative as naive. The White House, for its part, has decried Netanyahu's position as lacking substance. In her prebuttal last night, National Security Adviser Susan Rice took a swipe at Netanyahu, saying, "soundbites won't stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon -- diplomacy can."

The prime minister was well received by Republicans, who gave him numerous standing ovations: if he were born in America, Bibi would make a fine 2016 GOP candidate. But Democrats in Congress, while polite, were much less inclined to literally stand with Netanyahu -- and that doesn't include the approximately 60 Democrats who boycotted the speech.

Beyond the Beltway, Netanyahu's speech plays into the growing divide among the American public on Israel. Democrats -- younger, female, and minority voters in particular -- are more skeptical of Israel than Republicans voters, who skew white, male and older. Israel is increasingly becoming more like other traditional wedge issues in American politics: gay marriage, abortion, taxes, etc.

And while support for the country across the American public remains strong, the contrast between Netanyahu's Reaganesque refrains and the snark it simultaneously received on Twitter is only the latest sign of this growing partisan and generational divide.

Ari Ratner is a fellow at New America. He served as a political appointee in the Obama administration State Department from 2009-2012.

Netanyahu's big gamble

Ostensibly, this was a speech about Iran, but beneath its surface was another message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Bring back closeness between the Israeli and American people.

Netanyahu, as he often does, wrapped the Jewish narrative inside the American one: the two Promised Lands, the discreet topics known only "between an American president and an Israeli prime minister," even the gesture to the Senate minority leader by his first name.

You can't replace us, Netanyahu seemed to say. You want to talk to that regime in Tehran? See them send someone to where I stand. See them praise America and declare their affinity to the American people.

And, by the way, I, Bibi Netanyahu, get the nuances of U.S. politics, too. When I make my case, I cleverly play to American perceptions of Obama: weak, naïve -- and now ripped off at the Persian bazaar.

And I, "King Bibi," am still the master of politics at home. It's not only Obama who's a weak freier ("sucker"). It's my political opponent, too: Yitzhak Herzog, nickname "Bougie," which I always say with the greatest disdain. He could never stand up to anyone and give a speech like this. The Israeli public knows that. When they saw me tonight, they remembered it, too.

In only two weeks, they head to the polls.

Netanyahu gambled that this speech, for all its controversy, would empower him to drive the debate both in Washington and at home. He gambled that this ceremony would exert a psychological impact that no other forum could provide. Against the odds, Netanyahu may win his bet that this speech will put legislation to block a bad deal over the top -- it may be at the cusp of the 67 Senate votes needed to override a presidential veto.

Even then, though, he has another bet to win: that U.S.-Israeli ties are as deep and durable as he presented them on Tuesday. On that, the speech may not have repaired its own damage, and Israel's most American prime minister -- even once he gets past the voters on March 17 -- may still have much to do.

Owen Alterman is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Showdown looming between Obama, Netanyahu

Like most political speeches, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's congressional address was part theater and part substance.

His speech was an articulate indictment of the Iranian regime and the nuclear agreement taking shape, which he called a "very bad deal." The problem is that Netanyahu's penchant for political theater consistently distracts from his substantive points on Iran.

Moreover, by wading so deeply into American partisan politics, Netanyahu threatens to erode bipartisan support for Israel, which has been a tenet of U.S. support for three decades. Anything that harms that support harms Israel and U.S.-Israeli cooperation.

Netanyahu spoke to Congress, but he hopes Israeli voters, who head to the polls on March 17, are also listening. His speech aims to show Israelis that he is a tough leader, willing to stand up for Israel's survival, even if it means confronting the U.S. president, and his upcoming campaign ads are sure to feature the standing ovations and warm congressional embrace that he received.

If this strategy pays off and Netanyahu forms Israel's next government, while Iran talks reach a decisive moment, the showdown over his congressional address could merely be the dress rehearsal for a much more intense political showdown between Netanyahu and the Obama administration over Iran.

Haim Malka is senior fellow and deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Middle East Program.

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