It was High Noon on Capitol Hill on March 3, and Benjamin Netanyahu won.
I base this conclusion, not on what the hugely controversial Israeli prime minister said or did not say, but on what his critics said, and did not say.
The President of the United States was silent, despite being humiliated in his own back yard. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, seethed but sat still. Some 50 Democratic members of the House stayed away, but not that you would notice.
The public critical responses to Netanyahu’s assertions from National Security Adviser Susan Rice to the always slick and fashionable Peter Beinart, a “brilliant” and “courageous” pundit who made his name advocating the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were all petty, niggling, pathetic.
Netanyahu had one enormous reality on his side.
Iran is not just driving ahead to build a nuclear weapons program. Its leaders openly and repeatedly have advocated the annihilation of Israel from the face of the earth.
None of Netanyahu’s critics acknowledged that point. But then, how could they?
There is a case for supporting the P5 plus One initiative for a nuclear agreement with Iran. No less than 200 former Israeli generals have made it publicly. They also – publicly – slammed Netanyahu as a menace to their country.
But the President of the United States, the US Secretary of State, the National Security Adviser and all the rest of the Great and Good who guide the fortunes of our Great Republic did not have the brains or the nerve to quote Netanyahu’s own Israeli critics. Clearly, none of these great leaders of ours has ever played poker.
When you’re at the poker table and you’re up against a blustering phony, you call his bluff. Never fails.
But that never happened.
Adolf Hitler said after meeting Neville Chamberlain, “I met my enemies at Munich. They are worms.”
Netanyahu made the same determination about the Democrats and the Obama administration — and on that at least he was right.
Because, as Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University memorably said about Teddy Roosevelt 115 years ago, “You can’t beat Something with Nothing.” And Mr. Netanyahu is at least Something. Whereas, the administration and the rest of them are incontestably Nothing.
Rand Paul ostentatiously texted while listening to the Speech. He also applauded it, but only vapidly. Lukewarm, sitting on the fence responses like that are not approved of by the Christ of the Book of Revelation. He vomits them out.
Perhaps Sen. Paul was still dreaming of his paper triumph winning the CPAC straw poll the week before. Perhaps he was dreaming of being the young, handsome, dynamic, vice president to portly, old President Jeb Bush two years from now. But Paul neither stood up defiantly to Netanyahu, nor did he wholeheartedly support the Israeli leader’s case about the Iranian threat. He ducked the issue. He pulled a Jeb.
Netanyahu is at heart a reckless gambler. He rolled the dice big on this one. He may have won. Or it may all unravel. But either way, the next two weeks will tell the story.
For it all comes to a head on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. This year, it’s the date of the Israeli general election too.
Netanyahu is even lucky in his main opponent. Center-left Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog in Israel is a decent man. But he has the public persona of a secretly fearful sponge. His voice is high pitched and tends to the shrill. No Obama or Netanyahu commanding baritone for him. He seems to have a morbid phobia of saying anything memorable that anyone will remember.
Despite that, the social catastrophe in Israel was so bad that had it not been for the Iran issue and the Capitol Hill Speech, a last minute surge of women and young voters would probably have propelled Herzog into power and Netanyahu out of it anyway.
But by playing Gary Cooper on Capitol Hill, and facing down all his whining critics, Netanyahu strengthened support right when he needed it in his right-nationalist camp. And all his political opponents, in Israel as well as America, played right into his hands.
To use the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s great formulation, all Netanyahu’s enemies were foxes, clever, little political tacticians and hairsplitters, looking for tiny obscure little points to call him out over.
But Netanyahu, according to Berlin’s formulation, was the Big Hedgehog in the room. He knew One Big Thing. The Iranian nuclear program really does threaten nuclear annihilation or Israel – Why? Because 30 years of Iranian leaders in the Islamic Republic have consistently and systematically said so.
This speech, I repeat, may yet fizzle. God, the Universe and Fate may yet come down big against Netanyahu over the next two weeks.
But that hasn’t happened yet.
And when he stood up there in Congress on March 3, he stood tall and won big.
Martin Sieff is a former senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Times and former Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. Mr. Sieff is the author of “That Should Still Be Us: How Thomas Friedman’s Flat World Myths Are Keeping Us Flat on Our Backs” (Wiley 2012) and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East” (Regnery, 2008). He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting.