Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday elicited strong opinions from U.S. elected officials with rave reviews from Republicans and condemnation from several Democrats. But back home Israelis were nonplussed over the talk—if they watched at all.
With Israeli elections now two weeks away, Netanyahu’s address was widely thought to have doubled as late campaign pitch. Yet even those who support him found the speech redundant, and noted the lack of a clear alternative to the current negotiations between the P5+1 with Iran (the P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany). Moreover, Israelis understand that their country is not a party in the Iran deal and did not expect that Netanyahu would sway the State Department in its diplomatic path.
Of those that did listen the speech, 43% said Netanyahu was unable to change their vote, according to polls released Wednesday evening by Israel’s Channel 2. Apathy amongst Israelis was also confirmed by Netanyahu’s Likud party’s projected incremental gain in Knesset seats. He bumped up one spot to 23 seats after the talk in Washington, still trailing behind the center-left bloc, the Zionist Camp, which polled at 24 seats, again according to Channel 2. Throughout the election season Netanyahu and his opposition have each oscillated between 23 and 24 seats.
“I think it was a nice speech,” said Pinhas Karavasi, 59, a former electrician, while shopping in a convenience store Jerusalem’s Zion Square shopping corridor. Karavasi intends to vote for the right-wing, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. “I could vote for Likud, Likud is good too,” he said. But Karavasi was not convinced by the speech at Congress, “Netanyahu is good with his words, but not in reality.” For Karavasi, “The Palestinians, Hamas and the Palestinian territory, all of these problems are more important than Iran.”
Moreover, Karavasi does not believe Netanyahu can change the course of the P5+1 talks, nor does he think Netanyahu will conduct a military strike on Iran. While many Israelis backing Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc are opposed to world leaders striking any deal with Iran, for them, Iran is not a priority. In December over 50% of Israelis polled by Ma’ariv said that social or economic issues were the most important to them, opposed to 30% who said security. Still Israeli voters did regard Netanyahu’s talk with a generic source of pride, lauding his ability to grab headlines in America. Karavasi added, “I don’t think that he is going to do anything about Iran. I don’t think Obama is going to listen to him.”
David Mayer, 27, a cashier, agreed. On he Iran he said, “I think it is a bad country.” Still, out of apathy Mayer did not watch the speech. “I’m really avoiding this stuff,” he said.
“He didn’t say anything new, or how to make a better deal or agreement. He just repeated himself, that’s all,” said David Katz, 32, a worker in a paper store in near Mayer’s shop. Katz agrees with Netanyahu, that the U.S. should not move forward on making an agreement with Iran, and prefers harsher sanctions, “No one thinks differently than Netanyahu on Iran. The only differences when it comes to Iran are between Netanyahu and Obama, that is the only conflict in this issue.” Katz also saw Netanyahu’s speech as an example of bipartisan support for Israel, thought that the row over Netanyahu’s talk was more of a rift between the administration and Israel, rather than Democrats as a whole.
“In the relationship between Israel and the U.S., the one problem is Obama. Congress, from both sides, Democrats and Republicans, they don’t have a problem with Israel—not security, not economics, not anything at all. Only Obama has a problem with Israel,” continued Katz.
Katz is unsure who he will vote for, but Netanyahu will not be his selection. He wants a candidate from the hard right with a platform for the economy and the Palestinian conflict, both of which Netanyahu has remained quiet on throughout election season. “I think I will decide only when I sit in the ballot hallway.”
For those opposed to Netanyahu, the address to Congress changed nothing. Like their right-wing counterparts, issues of the economy and conflict with the Palestinians remain key concerns, two subjects Netanyahu did not touch upon when in Washington.
I heard it was a good speech,” said Tal Nachman, 23, a college student studying photography who did not watch the Netanyahu speech, “I’m not sure if it was,” she added. Nachman said she will not vote. In the last election she supported the center candidate Yair Lapid who vowed to reduce the cost of living in Israel. Following two years of his tenure as economic minister and prices rising in Israel, Nachman is disillusioned, “He promised a lot of things and never did anything,” she said.
“No one in the government is doing or planning to do anything for the students or for people that rent apartments—thousands of Shekels—nothing is really going on so it doesn’t really matter,” said Nachman.
Even though Nachman is not backing Netanyahu in this election, she had a blasé attitude towards him and the speech at Congress. “I think he is doing what is the best for Israel and what he thinks is the best.”
Others had harsher words for Netanyahu.
“It is abundantly clear that Netanyahu hopes his speech will cause western civil society to ignore the brutal occupation of the West Bank, the strangling siege of Gaza, and the unprecedented assault on the Palestinian people last summer, whose only achievement is that it claimed the lives of over 2,000 people,” said Itamar Haritan, 28, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University. Haritan is voting for the United Arab List, making him one of an estimated 10,000 Jewish-Israelis who will back Palestinian citizens of Israel in the next election. He is deeply opposed to Netanyahu and the speech to Congress only reaffirmed his beliefs. “His use of the threat of a ‘Second Holocaust’ with reference to Iran is so blatantly cynical that he has even used this strategy to deflect criticism regarding his government’s systematic dismantling of health care and public housing within Israel, making the Iran gambit a focal point of ridicule even in ‘mainstream’ Israeli-Jewish society.”
Following Netanyahu’s speech, the Arab List polled at an expected 13 seats, making it the third largest political party in Israel. The Arab List had been tied with the rightist Jewish Home and centrist Yesh Atid parties, however, they only polled at 12 seats, according to Channel 2.