Campaign Stop

I don’t know how I missed Gershom Gorenberg’s take on the Netanyahu speech to Congress at the Prospect the other day, but as you might expect he provides the essential Israeli political context in this succinct graph:

In the end, Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress was precisely what was expected from the beginning, from the day that House Speaker John Boehner publicly invited the Israeli prime minister: an Israeli campaign event before a more impressive and much more sycophantic audience than the Israeli prime minister could have found at home; a Republican show designed to use Israel against President Barack Obama; and a blow to the connection between Israel and the United States that Netanyahu and Boehner supposedly hold so dear.

What’s really galling is that Bibi would so endanger his country’s security for a glorified campaign stop. But like many pols over the centuries, he seems to have concluded maintenance of his power is identical to the national interest. And no backdrop back home would remotely compare to Congress:

Netanyahu insistently, desperately, wants to get the campaign conversation back to Iran. Much more than he’d like, that conversation has been devoted to economic issues, particularly to out-of-control housing prices. Last week, Israel’s state comptroller issued a detailed report that assigned central blame for the housing crisis to Netanyahu. The prime minister’s immediate response to the comptroller’s report on housing prices was, “The biggest challenge facing us… is the threat of Iran having nuclear arms.”

A poll published mere hours before Netanyahu’s speech showed that 56 percent of the public consider home prices the main issue of the campaign, and only 31 percent assign that status to Iran. The pollsters framed the choice too narrowly, but the mood it reflects is real.

The chance to speak about Iranian nukes to reflexively applauding members of Congress came just when needed. When he picked the date, Netanyahu didn’t know the housing report was coming. But he did know that he’d get an hour of free television time, two weeks before elections. Israeli election law strictly limits the amount of broadcast time that parties get for campaign ads. And the ads began, as scheduled, on the very day that Netanyahu addressed Congress—but the speech didn’t use any minutes of his Likud Party’s quota, because it didn’t count as an ad.

I suspect many members of Congress didn’t quite realize how they were being used, but unfortunately, many others would have been delighted at the idea they were giving Bibi a tangible boost at a critical moment in the Israeli election campaign. After all, the Israeli cause as defined by Netanyahu is their own idea of a U.S. foreign policy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.