Netanyahu meets U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Netanyahu meets U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 3, 2015.
Gary Cameron / Courtesy Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the Iranian nuclear program went about as expected. The only new elements were the requirements that Netanyahu called on Washington to impose on Iran before sanctions are lifted: an end to aggression in the Middle East; an end to support for international terrorism; and an end to threats to annihilate Israel.

The question is what will happen next. Contrary to some of the handwringing in Washington and Israel, it is doubtful that a serious downgrading of the U.S.-Israeli alliance is in the offing. The partnership is built on much more than the personal relationship between one president and one prime minister. It is possible, however, that the Obama administration will be less interested in hearing Netanyahu’s concerns about the substance of any final deal with Iran.

On the U.S. side, the visit has, of course, exacerbated divisions within the American Jewish community. But what about the Israeli side? Many observers accuse Netanyahu of using the speech to drum up support in the upcoming Israeli election. But even there, his talk will probably matter very little. Israeli voters prefer a close, well-functioning U.S.-Israeli relationship, and Israeli commentators have highlighted Netanyahu’s role in complicating it. But historically, concerns that an incumbent candidate has undermined the U.S.-Israeli relationship aren’t the primary worry on poll day. Nor has any candidate ever won an election on the strength of his or her “pro-U.S.” credentials.

The closest comparisons are Yitzhak Shamir’s loss in 1992 and Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999. In both cases, there were several other prominent issues at stake, making U.S.-Israeli relations only one concern among many—and certainly not the deciding factor.

In 1992, incumbent Prime Minister Shamir lost a reelection bid over domestic problems, not over Israel’s relationship with the United States.

There was widespread concern regarding the public spat with U.S. President George H. W. Bush. But Israelis were more upset about the social and economic problems plaguing the country. They resented Shamir’s single-minded focus on the settlements and his insistence that public funds—including loans guaranteed by Washington—be directed toward them. Shamir’s own advisers warned him that tying his campaign to the settlements would be detrimental. He ignored them and then lost the vote of the Russian community, which cost him a handful of seats that might have tilted the election in his favor. He was also running against the widely admired and trusted Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin; in fact, Labor changed its name to “the Labor Party Headed by Rabin.” Compared with Rabin, Shamir appeared tired, stale, and overly confrontational.

Netanyahu lost a reelection bid in 1999 for domestic reasons as well. He was widely mistrusted because of a series of corruption scandals that plagued his government and family (his wife, Sara, was accused of vicious behavior toward employees and interference in politics). Netanyahu had also failed to deliver on his promise to ensure personal security for all Israelis, and despite repeated assurances that he would not withdraw from the West Bank, he signed two agreements with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat—the Hebron Agreement and the Wye River Memorandum—that did just that.

Like Shamir in 1992, Netanyahu was running against a popular opponent, Labor Party leader and decorated soldier Ehud Barak. Relations with Washington were only a minor campaign issue. According to the 1999 Israel National Election Study, when asked after the vote what they thought was the main topic of the election, 73.1 percent of Israelis “agreed” or “definitely agreed” it was about Netanyahu’s quality as prime minister; the rest of the top answers focused on the rule of law, improvement of social and economic conditions, and peace with the Palestinians. In the end, Netanyahu was defeated 56 percent to 44 percent in a direct election for prime minister.

Today, although there is agreement across the Israeli political spectrum that Iran is a threat, Israelis have been skeptical of the benefits of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. According to the Israel Democracy Institute’s January Peace Index, more Israelis thought that the speech undermined Israel’s national interests in some way than did not. Almost 46 percent thought it “greatly” or “moderately” damaged them. Another 23 percent said the speech did not damage them “so much,” which does not sound all that reassuring. Later polls bolstered that finding.

That isn’t because they believe that U.S. President Barack Obama is right to deal with Iran. The Peace Index also found that 57.6 percent of Israelis think there is a “moderately high” or “very high” chance that Obama would sign an agreement with Iran even if Jerusalem made clear such a treaty would undermine Israeli security. In February 2015, 72 percent of Israelis said that they do not trust Obama to keep Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

At the same time, although Netanyahu is not widely liked, he is tolerated in part because there aren’t any viable alternatives to his leadership. According to one poll conducted in December 2014 as the Knesset was dissolving itself in preparation for new elections, 65 percent of Israelis said they did not want Netanyahu to be prime minister again. But Netanyahu has consistently outranked all other political leaders as the preferred candidate for prime minister, including Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett.

For his part, Herzog has failed to distinguish himself from Netanyahu on foreign policy (or domestic policy). Herzog’s recent op-ed in The New York Times, for example, calls the speech “a major mistake” but then focuses on his concerns about the Iranian threat and the possibility that the United States will agree to “an insufficient guarantee of our safety” with Iran. That only reinforces Netanyahu’s own claims that his focus on Iran is right.

It is true that polls in the last week show that Netanyahu’s Likud Party has been falling behind the Zionist Union (an alliance between Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua) by one or two seats, 25 to 23 or 23 to 22. Occasionally the parties break even, at 24 or 23 seats each. Any use of Israeli polls must be accompanied by several caveats, including concerns about methodology. It is also the case that respondents sometimes say one thing at the time of the survey and then change their minds by the time of the actual vote. Indeed, Israeli polls have notoriously high margins of error.

Still, recent polling results do not indicate that Netanyahu’s machinations in Washington are affecting voters one way or the other, since most are focused on socioeconomic conditions. Indeed, Israelis have said their vote won’t be affected by whether the speech goes ahead or not.

It may not matter in the end, anyway. Israeli politics is as much about political blocs as parties. Likud’s disappearing seats appear to be going to parties on the right and in the center. The right-wing parties will choose Netanyahu over Herzog, and the religious cluster is more likely than not to do the same. The centrist parties could conceivably go either way, but all else being equal, they lean right. Finally, many of the parties that could join a potential Herzog coalition have insisted that they will not work with one another, because of different ideological commitments or policy priorities.

In short, although “speechgate” has occupied the commentariat over the last few weeks, there is no indication that it will matter for Israelis. In the end, the partisan bickering over it says much more about American politics than about Israeli politics.

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  • BRENT E. SASLEY is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter @besasley.
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