Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech draws expected cheers, boos at home

Israelis watch Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address Congress in a shop in the city of Netivot on March 3.
Israelis watch Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address Congress in a shop in the city of Netivot on March 3.
(Tsafrir Abayov / Associated Press)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contentious address to Congress on Tuesday drew predictable criticism from campaign opponents at home and praise from those in his own political camp.

The prime minister, delivering his remarks in eloquent colloquial English, warned of the dangers of a prospective nuclear accord with Iran while invoking the horrors of the Holocaust and the deep bond between Israel and the United States.

Speaking just two weeks before Israeli elections, Netanyahu received repeated standing ovations and prolonged, raucous applause from American lawmakers at the end of the address.


Netanyahu’s appearance came in defiance of the Obama administration, which was not consulted in advance about the Republican invitation for him to address a joint session of Congress. Back in Israel, his campaign opponents again questioned his motives for imperiling the crucial partnership with the United States.

“Undoubtedly, Netanyahu knows how to deliver a speech,” his chief opponent, Isaac Herzog, told a rally at a farming community in southern Israel. But he said the circumstances surrounding the address “caused grave damage to Israeli relations with the U.S.,” adding that it “will not change the administration’s position, and will only deepen the rift with our most important ally.”

The prime minister’s Likud bloc, locked in a tight race with the Zionist Union, insisted as it has for weeks that the prime minister felt morally obliged to speak out on Iran regardless of the diplomatic fallout with the Obama administration -- and insisted his address was not motivated by campaign considerations.

“The speech was serious, well-explained, convincing and devoid of any politicization,” Yisrael Katz, a Likud member and Netanyahu’s transportation minister, told Israel’s Channel One.

On Israeli channels, the speech was broadcast on a five-minute delay so that any remark deemed to be overt electioneering could be cut out. But Israelis could easily view the speech live online or on international broadcasts.

Prominent columnist Dan Margalit of Yisrael Hayom predicted that the speech would be a political boost for the prime minister -- but at a cost. Referring to the remainder of Obama’s term, he said that even if Netanyahu wins this month’s elections, he can expect to be frozen out by the U.S. administration.


“Netanyahu is not likely to see the inside of the White House until January 2017,” Margalit said.

Sobelman is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

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