Political speech is about leadership, which looks to the future. It is about conquering hearts and minds. Great political leaders must have the vision to look through the detritus of the present to a preferred path to the future. They must have the knowledge to inform, the eloquence to energize and the ability to persuade their audience. Such individuals and their speeches are rare.
We think of Pericles’ Funeral Oration in 430BC and Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, or Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 and the power of his Second Inaugural in 1865. We remember Churchill in June 1940, when England stood alone in the hours at a time Europe had gone dark. And we should also recall the less-well-known speech that same month when Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Zionist activist and soldier, spoke to an overflow crowd at New York’s Manhattan Center of the need to raise a Jewish army to combat the “giant rattlesnake” that was Nazism.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech may not have risen to those lofty levels, but it was a good one. Mr. Obama’s hissy-fit raised its notoriety. It was gracious, and powerful in the clarity of its admonitory message. He presented his vision in vivid and frightening detail, as he should. He began by thanking America for backing Israel, and especially America’s Presidents, “from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.” He thanked Congress for the “Iron Dome,” which protected millions of Israelis from thousands of Hamas rockets last summer.
But his purpose was to speak against the deal being negotiated by President Obama, which would peremptorily lift existing sanctions against Iran on the expectation they would join the “community of nations;” so voluntarily give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Mr. Netanyahu talked of the long history of the Jews and Iran. He spoke of the Persian viceroy Haman who, 2,500 years ago, plotted to destroy the Jewish people only to be thwarted by a “courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther.” He observed that the militant Islamic regime has been in power since 1979, and that the threat they pose Israel and the world is potentially apocalyptic. He fears that the treaty being drafted “that’s supposed to prevent nuclear proliferation would instead spark a nuclear arms race in the most dangerous part of the planet.” He spoke of how Iran and ISIS are “competing for the crown of militant Islam…Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire, first on the region and then on the entire world.” He went on: “In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel.” He pointed out that Iran increasingly dominates Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. “The enemy of my enemy,” in this instance, “is my enemy.”
With the exception of some obvious and expected rudeness – Nancy Pelosi was seen turning her back, at least once during a standing ovation, and later claimed the speech “brought tears to her eyes,” as “he insulted the intelligence of Americans” – Mr. Netanyahu was well received. His forty minute speech was interrupted forty times by applause. Reaction was as expected. It was praised by most Republicans and by several Democrats, like Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. It was dismissed by Iran. Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar said: “I don’t think it carried much weight. They’re trying to derail the deal.” It is true that Mr. Netanyahu is trying to derail what he sees as a “bad deal” – a bad deal for Israel and the West, though not for Iran. The speech was termed ‘lecturing’ by some and ‘condescending’ by others – though the accusatory tone of the latter was itself condescending.
President Obama was not particularly charitable in his criticism. He said there was nothing new and it offered no alternatives. (He did not listen to it, having hastily arranged a teleconference with European leaders regarding Ukraine, but he claimed to have read it.) Keep in mind, Mr. Netanyahu, who had been warned against releasing any details regarding the negotiations, specifically mentioned that all facts he used could be found on Google. Mr. Obama’s dismissal of the speech as offering no alternatives, suggests he did not peruse it; he must have skimmed it. (His criticisms appeared to mimic Tweets from David Axelrod.) Mr. Netanyahu said that sanctions should be extended and intensified – that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program should not be lifted “as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and the world.” He said that before lifting the restrictions the world should demand Iran do three things: stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East; stop supporting terrorism around the world, and stop threatening to annihilate Israel. He added: “If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed, at the very least they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires.” Toward the end, he added, “I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”
While there may have been no new information in the speech, the dire situation faced by Israel and the world was placed in a context that was new, at least to most Americans. Mr. Netanyahu noted that sanctions are having an impact – that the deal is more important to Iran than to the West. He noted that Iran is in a position of weakness. The price of crude oil, for example, is half what it was a year ago. He pointed out the two major concessions the deal creates: first, the vast nuclear infrastructure Iran possesses would largely remain in place, so that the “break-out time” to create a bomb would be a matter of months. The second concession is that all restrictions imposed on Iran would expire in ten years. Mr. Netanyahu said that no deal should have a sunset provision, noting that a decade may be a long time for a politician, “but it’s the blink of an eye in the life of a nation.”
Mr. Netanyahu came to a country weary and skeptical of war, and one already in partisan divide, but made worse by Mr. Obama’s treaty proposal with Iran, a treaty negotiated in secret and that would be signed without consent by the Senate. The Obama Administration did its best to belittle the Prime Minister. His minions tossed out disingenuous scree, such as claiming the invitation by House Speaker John Boehner was “a breach of protocol,” or that the speech would “create a rift between Israel and the United States” – that it would be destructive They feared Mr. Netanyahu would first inform and then sway public opinion to the risks of negotiating a bad deal.
To the extent the speech changes the dynamics of the negotiations with Iran, which I suspect it will, it will rank among the best. The threat Iran poses is a threat against the culture of liberty. Democracy is a high-maintenance form of government. “Some of our rights may be inalienable,” wrote Roger Kimball publisher of the New Criterion recently; “none is without a price.” Shortly after 9/11, Benjamin Netanyahu observed that the attack was a salvo in “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.” We ignore a nuclear armed militant-Islamist regime in Iran at our peril. We have now been duly warned, thanks to Mr. Netanyahu. Let us pray his words are heeded.
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