10:50am: In about ten minutes, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is going to address the US Congress. This address will likely be the culminating point of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States. I’ve argued before that the uproar over Obama’s remarks on the ’67 borders is contrived, as it reflects a long-standing US position and is flexible enough to accommodate fears of “indefensibility.” Netanyahu was not speaking to Obama when he made his critical remarks. He was speaking to his fragmentary domestic coalition and his supporters in the US. Today’s address will be another opportunity to address those audiences, and to reinforce a trend noted by other commentators in which the Israelis have been increasingly able to leverage American domestic forces.
11:00am: Congressmen are filing in. My updates may be sporadic–my wireless is being strained by the thunderstorm rolling in here in Southwest Virginia.
11:02am: This will all surely be awkward for Obama. Letting anybody address a joint session is risky–recall, for instance, General MacArthur’s famous farewell address to a joint session, which helped cement US President Harry S Truman’s falling popularity.
11:04: The PLO has sent a representative to CNN’s studio to preface the speech. Recall that Hamas does not participate in the PLO. Netanyahu will likely attempt to draw out the distinction.
11:07: Boehner reads out the list of sponsors of the speech. A remarkably bipartisan and lengthy list–Pelosi, Cantor, Ros-Lehtinen . . .
11:09: The audience appears to have refrained from the trend seen at State of the Union addresses of wearing eye-catchingly bright colors to draw attention. It will be interesting to see if Netanyahu is subjected to Congress’s other joint session oddity–the partisan ovation.
11:14: The PLO’s representative suggests a non-UN statehood path is possible with appropriate concessions. Hard to say that’s realistic, though it’s been said the Israelis are more worried about UN recognition than one would think. Netanyahu’s coalition, though, likely wouldn’t survive major concessions.
11:18: Netanyahu is quite late. Obama, recall, gave his speech announcing bin Laden’s death about an hour after it was announced.
11:19: Netanyahu is now entering to enthusiastic, though not rapturous, applause.
11:20: Seats are not nearly as packed as they typically are for a State of the Union. The crowd of well-wishers greeting Netanyahu was also notably smaller.
11:22: Three full minutes of applause are finally stopped by Boehner’s gavel. Another round quickly follows.
11:24: Netanyahu is turning up the charisma.
11:25: A congratulations and “good riddance” for the President’s killing of bin Laden.
11:27: More positive remarks about Obama. Bibi’s tone towards the President will be interesting to see.
11:29: Praise for the Arab Spring . . . and, on cue, a protester in the gallery. Netanyahu remarks that having protests “is real democracy.” He sounded prepared for interruption.
11:32: Netanyahu emphasizes Israel’s commitment to human rights against mob rule. The new residency laws go unmentioned.
11:34: Netanyahu emphasizes the freedom of the Arab Israelis. He is wisely avoiding remarks that I have heard from Israeli diplomats that deeply questioned their loyalties.
11:36: Netanyahu is speaking from notes, not a teleprompter, and he’s doing an excellent job. Obama may wish to take notice for his next addresses to joint sessions.
11:37: Netanyahu speaks of the danger of a “militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons,” referring to Iran. Despite the humorous tone of his speech so far, he refrains from any quips about Pakistan.
11:41: Bibi has been emphasizing the specialness of the US-Israeli relationship, rather than pushing new policies. It looks like he’s not, say, preparing the rhetorical ground for strikes.
11:43: Requests that all options remain on the table against Iran. Applause stronger on the Republican side of the podium.
11:46: Applause for a remark requesting a continuation of US aid to Israel’s Arab treaty partners.
11:47: “In a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland.” He then refers to the region as Judea and Samaria–a dog whistle for the right side of his coalition. The first remark, though, highlights the lack of daylight between Obama and Netanyahu that I alluded to at the beginning of the session.
11:50: Praise for Palestinian PM Fayyad, who gets some applause.
11:51: Bibi emphasizes the new growth of the Palestinian economy–certainly aided by Israeli and American assistance, but also by the reduction of Israeli restrictions.
11:52: “Our conflict is not about the establishment of a Palestinian state . . . it is about the existence of a Jewish state.”
11:55: “It’s time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say ‘I will accept a Jewish state.'” Good luck on that.
11:56: “Compromise must reflect demographic changes” of post 1967. Settlements and “strategic” areas “will be incorporated into the final borders of Israel.” Emphasizes that some settlements will not remain in Israel.
11:57: “As President Obama said, the border will be different.” Genius move–Netanyahu has closed the gap between rhetoric and reality that I had discussed earlier.
11:59: “Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel,” i.e., right of return will be to Palestine, not Israel. Probably what any final settlement will actually look like–the Palestinians know right of return to Israel isn’t going to happen.
12:00pm: “Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel” gets a standing ovation. Laughter likely coming from the US embassy in Tel Aviv.
12:02: Netanyahu is playing a very smart game here–using lots of charisma and humor. Another joke with Biden.
12:04: “Palestinian state must be fully demilitarized . . . Israel must maintain a presence on the Jordan River.” Again, quite realistic, though Palestine will likely have, as is the trend, at least a dozen paramilitary organizations under the umbrella of the state.
12:05: Says “Peace cannot be imposed” in reference to the UN statehood bid. The gap between rhetoric and reality–for the statehood bid is not an attempt to form peace–has reappeared. Netanyahu must truly be nervous.
12:07: Bibi calls for an end of the Fatah-Hamas accord, and states that in return “Israel will be the first” to welcome Palestine’s UN membership. Abbas would be wise to get that in writing.
12:09: A strong close to the speech, thanking the US for its decades of support and using the traditional invocation of God that American presidents typically end major addresses with.
12:10: Bibi got 26 standing ovations in 50 minutes, says CNN.
12:22: This has been an extremely strong speech on Netanyahu’s part. Israel’s contentious and democratic domestic politics have made him better prepared to address a raucous body like the US Congress than any Palestinian leader would be. The PLO representative on CNN correctly pointed out that there were no new positions in this speech. However, Netanyahu, against my expectations, attempted to close the gaps between his own position and that of Obama rather than exposing them and attempting to get Congress on his side. This was a very wise move on his part–though Israel’s ties to the US are strong, there has been more soul-searching on the relationship in recent years, especially as the right-leaning Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition has taken a harder line than many in the US approve of and as events like the flotilla incident and the Gaza war have harmed Israel’s credibility. Had Netanyahu attempted to create a political fragmentation in his favor, those insecurities would enter the mainstream debate. Instead, he emphasized similarities between Israel and America, and showed incredible humor and charisma for a leader typically regarded as icy and watchful. If he is as astute in handling the Knesset as he was in handling the Congress, Netanyahu will remain a long-term fixture of the Israeli government–surely not music to the ears of Abbas and Fayyad.