President Obama may have thought he could upstage Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled address to a joint meeting of Congress by delivering his own Middle East policy speech that tilted the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians favor the day before the Israeli arrived in Washington. Obama’s declaration that the 1967 lines must be the basis for peace talks was widely interpreted as a challenge to Netanyahu for which the prime minister was thought to have no effective answer.
But Obama was wrong. Netanyahu’s gutsy decision to refuse to take the ambush planned by the White House lying down was thought impertinent by many observers but it was the right decision. Rather than being cowed by the administration’s pressure play, Netanyahu’s assertion of Israel’s rights and security illustrated something that his country’s critics don’t seem to understand: the American people back Israel.
Rather than Obama’s speech overshadowing Netanyahu’s address, it merely served to increase interest in the prime minister’s remarks. When Netanyahu arrived in the House chamber, he was given a warmer greeting than most American presidents receive. During the course of an eloquent and brilliant speech that laid out Israel’s desire for peace as well as the threats that face it, Netanyahu was interrupted with standing ovations from the assembled Congress more than two dozen times. The cheers were not mere form; they were a genuine expression of the heartfelt support that huge majorities of both parties in both chambers feel for Israel. The speech was a triumph that can well be compared to the applause earned by Winston Churchill when he spoke to Congress as a wartime ally. It didn’t just highlight the bonds between Israel and America but the willingness of this Congress to view Netanyahu personally as a special friend of the American people.
Rather than boxing Netanyahu into a corner from which he would be forced to accept Obama’s terms, the Israeli will return home secure in the knowledge that Congress has his back and that he will be able to withstand the pressure that both the White House and America’s European allies plan to put on his country. Obama’s Middle East speech broke new ground but it will ultimately lead to nothing since the Palestinians will continue to refuse to make peace with Israel. But the support for the Jewish state that Netanyahu’s speech illustrated is a fact of political life that Obama will have to learn to live with. As he did when he outmaneuvered Obama the previous times when the president picked fights with Israel, Netanyahu emerged triumphant.