December 14, 2018

Bibi’s speech to Congress: Watch out for the details

Don’t let anyone tell you that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday is not important, or, as President Barack Obama put it on Monday, a “distraction.” It’s hardly that. It’s more like a piece of history.

First, as the hour approaches, we’re seeing a little momentum shift towards the speech. This is, partly, a function of our American Super Bowl mentality, where any high-profile event draws attention, no matter the event. As Seth Lipsky wrote in Haaretz, “What is coming into focus is the fact that Congress and millions of Americans are eager to hear what Netanyahu has to say.” 

Second, just as in real estate, the significance of Tuesday’s speech is location, location, location. Bibi will be making his case in a sanctuary of global power, face to face with legislators who hold the power of sanctions in their hands. President Obama can suspend sanctions against Iran temporarily, but only Congress can repeal them or enact new ones.

Third, with the negotiations in their final leg, Bibi will have the chance to plant some important seeds. The murmurs I picked up in the corridors of the AIPAC conference is that “God will be in the details.” In other words, the emotional clichés won’t be enough. To punch holes in the current approach and dramatize what he considers a “bad deal,” Bibi will need to get specific.

To take one example, as Obama stated on Monday in an interview with Reuters, his red line is to ensure a nuclear breakout time of at least a year. That might sound reasonable, but as Dr Michael Makovsky explained in the Weekly Standard, there’s really no way to guarantee that.

“The multitude of steps across multiple institutions that would have to be taken to detect, verify, and try to resolve diplomatically any Iranian attempt to sneak out or break out means a year would pass before a military strike could even be considered,” Makovsky writes. “In any case, prompt and thorough verification would be virtually unachievable because the deal won't require full Iranian transparency on its past research into nuclear weapons technology.”

If Bibi hopes to punch holes in the current approach, he’ll need to provide enough detail to plant seeds of doubt in his audience, especially with Democrats.  

As Nachum Barnea wrote on Ynet, “President Obama knows that in order to guarantee that the Congress will not sabotage the agreement with Iran, he must at least convince the members of the Democratic minority in the two houses of Congress that he has reached a reasonable agreement, which is not a fig leaf concealing an American acceptance of a nuclear bomb.”

This is why I see Bibi’s speech on Tuesday as more instruction and inspiration than distraction. He'll offer Congress his definition of a “reasonable agreement.” He’ll be passionate about the high stakes. He'll be polite but firm. And he'll have what he loves: a captive audience.

His biggest challenge, perhaps, in light of the political fireworks he has ignited over the past few weeks, will be to keep his audience’s attention focused on policy rather than politics.

In a town where politics is oxygen, that won’t be an easy task, but it’s a mission Bibi has willingly chosen.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at