Why Does Bibi Do It?

The real reason Netanyahu is willing to risk Israel’s relationship with the U.S.

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010.

Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

World leaders have long racked up points at home for being antagonistic toward the United States. Hugo Chavez called Barack Obama “a clown” and “an embarrassment.” Vladimir Putin routinely rails against American hypocrisy. Evo Morales has blasted “North American imperialism.” Their approval ratings soared. In Israel, however, this was never the case. Historically, Israel’s bond with the U.S. has always been its most valued strategic asset. Even as relations between the countries’ leaders frayed in recent years, Israelis have been steadfast in their belief that America has their back. Asked this past December about the importance of the country’s relations with the U.S., 96 percent of Israelis deemed it extremely important.

In January, Speaker John Boehner announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted his invitation to speak in front of a joint session of Congress about the Iranian threat. It soon emerged that Netanyahu failed to consult or notify President Obama about the invitation until after the fact—an unprecedented move for a head of state. Given Israelis’ deep reverence for the U.S., how is it that Netanyahu decided to blindside the American president by accepting the invitation? Why, two weeks before Israel heads to the ballots in a race that looks set to be the tightest in years, was Netanyahu willing to jeopardize the country’s “unshakable bond” with America in order to publicly rebuke U.S. government foreign policy?

Netanyahu’s declared reason of preventing a nuclear Iran doesn’t explain it. Obama has already stated that he would veto a bill allowing Congress to pass legislation on Iran. This means that even if Netanyahu were to deliver a rousing speech—and there’s no overstating his verbal pyrotechnics—and convince the assembling representatives that a deal with Iran over its nuclear program would be a mistake, there’s practically nothing Congress could do about it. (To override a presidential veto, Congress would need a near-impossible majority.) It’s certainly true that Netanyahu has a grandiose view of his role in history and wants to be seen as a kind of latter-day Churchill, sounding the warning bells against an impending disaster. He once declared: “The year is 1938 and Iran is Germany.” Still, if warding off a nuclear Iran is the real goal, Netanyahu’s most effective recourse is through private, back-channel talks with Obama, an option he all but vanquished by airing his disagreements with the president in public.

“Iran wants Netanyahu’s speech—since it understands that it will weaken Israel’s bipartisan bond with the U.S.,” Amiram Levin, a former deputy chief of Mossad, said at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Sunday. “For Iran, a strategically weak Israel is an asset which will help Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, since they know that it will prevent a viable military option against them.” Levin isn’t the only Israeli general saying that Netanyahu’s speech is damaging: Almost 200 former military and intelligence officials on Sunday called on Netanyahu to cancel the speech, arguing that it would only serve to push Iran closer to developing a nuclear bomb.

They include perhaps the most vociferous opponent of Netanyahu’s Iran policy, Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief. “What we could have done are time-prolonging actions: clandestine activities, support of opposition forces and minorities within Iran,” Dagan told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot over the weekend. “Congress may applaud Netanyahu, but the power lies with the president. What is Netanyahu hoping to achieve in his visit?” Dagan asked. “Applause? This visit is a predetermined failure.”

One reason that may explain Netanyahu’s decision to go ahead with the controversial speech is that he didn’t know just how controversial it would prove to be: His inner circle miscalculated the furor that a speech would sow with the American administration until it was too late. There are signs that Netanyahu tried to repair the damage. After accepting Boehner’s invitation to deliver the speech without first notifying Obama, Netanyahu then dispatched top Israeli officials to Capitol Hill to try and contain the Democrats’ anger. (Their efforts failed; 34 Democratic senators and House members said they would likely skip the speech, according to CNN.) Yet this misjudgment still doesn’t explain why, once the extent of the rift became clear, Netanyahu didn’t backtrack on his decision, or why he took the extra step of refusing to privately meet with Democratic senators during his visit to Washington.

A more comprehensive explanation for Netanyahu’s failure to consult the president about his speech has to do with his growing partisan involvement in American politics. According to this view, Netanyahu’s acceptance of Boehner’s invitation, which flew in the face not only of Obama but of diplomatic accord, is the latest in a long, unprecedented process that breaks with Israel’s bipartisan record and aligns his interests squarely with the Republican Party. This Republican alignment can be seen in everything from Netanyahu’s close friendship with and dependence on the conservative business magnate Sheldon Adelson, to his blunt displays of support for a Romney candidacy in 2012, to his appointment of Ron Dermer, a protégé of Republican pollster Frank Luntz, for Ambassador to the U.S. By all accounts, it was Dermer who convinced Netanyahu that Obama would not be re-elected for a second term; Netanyahu and Dermer had gone out of their way to back the Republicans, while infuriating Obama’s camp, only to see their efforts nulled by an Obama victory.

But while this argument may address Netanyahu’s personal partisan calculus for accepting Boehner’s invitation, it still fails to explain why he thought the Israeli public would reward him for exacerbating the rift with the U.S. To understand this, we have to consider what’s on the forefront of Israelis’ minds ahead of the country’s elections: not Iran, not security, but the economy.

According to a poll released Sunday by Israel’s Channel 10, 56 percent of Israelis said that what they care most about is the country’s “high cost of living.” Only 27 percent said the security threat. (A measly 8 percent of Israelis believed it was the state of negotiations with the Palestinians.) 

Israelis’ resurgent interest in economic issues is in part the result of a new and damning report by the state comptroller, which criticized Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, for failing to respond quicker to the country’s housing crisis. The report found that between 2008 and 2013, the price of apartments rose 55 percent and rent increased by 30 percent in real terms. The upward trend, the report found, is still ongoing. Rising housing costs, the report states, “threaten the economic stability of half a million households.” In a country of 8 million people, that is no negligible number. 

Following the release of the report, and on the heels of another state comptroller inquiry into the spending habits of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara—which revealed, among other thing, a two-year cost of $68,000 on the couple’s make-up and hairstyling—many Israelis have grown dispirited. Forty percent said they were less likely to vote for Netanyahu’s Likud Party because of the report’s findings; among likely Likud voters, 22 percent said they were less likely to vote for the party. The report came out only after Netanyahu had already accepted Boehner’s invitation, but Israelis’ economic frustrations have been boiling for the past few years—most notably during the social protest movement of 2011. (On Sunday I received a Facebook invitation to attend an upcoming rally in Tel Aviv with the tagline: “I’m 40 years old and don’t have an apartment.”)

This means that even though the prime minister’s scheduled speech may have brought U.S.–Israel relations to an all-time nadir, Netanyahu can still consider it as an effective smoke screen—even at the cost of creating a rift with the White House. To put it bluntly, every day in which Netanyahu manages to deflect conversation away from the economy is a good day for him.  

“Obama is our best campaigner,” an unnamed member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party told Yossi Verter of Haaretz over the weekend. “Last time around, the Palestinians and their bombings did our job for us. Now it’s the president of the United States.” So far, Netanyahu’s gamble appears to have paid off, but only barely: 42 percent of Israelis said they were in favor of his speech and 37 percent said they were against it, according to Israel Radio. He may be hoping that this break-even support for the speech, coupled with glowing reviews after will be enough to quell voters’ economic concerns and guarantee him a next term in office. 

On Monday Netanyahu spoke in front of a friendly crowd at the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a kind of grand rehearsal before the big show. On Tuesday, he will head to Congress for what many in Israel have dubbed “the speech of his life.” He will be speaking in English, to American lawmakers, about the threat of a foreign and hostile country. But while the world’s eyes will be turned to Washington, Netanyahu’s gaze will be turned back home, to Jerusalem. It will be his biggest campaign ad to date.