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JOAN VENNOCHI

Netanyahu seizes opportunity in speech before Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about Iran before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about Iran before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. (AP)

Maybe President Obama didn’t hear anything new when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress.

But I did. And I bet I’m not the only American who appreciated a leader who used simple, direct language to tell his audience exactly what he thinks about a complex subject.

Americans heard Netanyahu make a powerful case for why a still unfinalized nuclear weapons agreement with Iran is a bad deal. Of course, he presented a strictly one-sided view — his own. But until Netanyahu forced Obama to rebut the Israeli leader’s perspective, it’s all Americans had.

Netanyahu’s speech generated lots of attention, and for that Obama has no one to blame but himself. He and his administration made such a fuss over it and the insult it supposedly represented to an American president that they heightened interest in what Netanyahu had to say. One week, millions of Americans were debating whether an Internet-generated dress was white and gold or blue and black; the next week, a slice of the same population went out of its way to tune into a talk given in Washington by a foreign leader who spoke about “centrifuges.”

That doesn’t happen very often in the land of Kim Kardashian.

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Instead of ignoring Netanyahu, Obama fanned the flames of curiosity. He dispatched National Security Adviser Susan Rice to tell the world that Netanyahu’s speech would be a “destructive” force in US-Israeli relations. Vice President Joe Biden and a contingent of Democrats boycotted this speech — the third Netanyahu has delivered to Congress. And with that, people who normally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about nuclear weapons and the best way to keep a country like Iran from building an arsenal of them suddenly wanted to hear what Netanyahu had to say.

The man knows how to give a speech. It was delivered with passion and purpose and filled with memorable lines. Students of Netanyahu can dismiss his effort as manipulative theater, delivered to an audience predisposed to embrace every carefully designed sound bite, no matter how stale and recycled. But that criticism overlooked Netanyahu’s new, expanded audience, just tuning into the debate and less familiar with his past rhetoric.

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A New York Times editorial called Netanyahu’s speech “unconvincing.” For an exclusive circle of knowledgeable experts whose minds are already made up, that’s no doubt true. But for others, Netanyahu accomplished his mission. He seized opportunity and painted the picture of what the United States and its negotiating partners are trying to do. He was able to do it because the other side failed to paint that picture first.

There may be good reason for that, such as the limitations imposed by the negotiating process. Yet, as Netanyahu said, “While the final deal has not yet been signed, certain elements of any potential deal are now a matter of public record. You don’t need intelligence agencies and secret information to know this. You can Google it.”

If Netanyahu exploited the situation, as critics complain, whining about it accomplishes nothing. Obama needs to sell his own strategy for dealing with Iran. What’s missing, yet again, is any cohesive explanation to the American people of their government’s overall mission. That void is what Netanyahu artfully exploited. There are daily photos of Secretary of State John Kerry standing around in different countries. But what’s the big foreign policy picture? From a communications standpoint, it’s MIA.

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From health care reform to the economic bailout, it’s an old problem for the Obama administration. Rather than set the terms of the debate, this president lets the other side define it. Then, he has to fight to take back control of the message. The process is backwards.

With the Iran negotiations, Obama and Kerry wanted to present Americans with a deal, tell them how good it is and expect them to accept their word.

Netanyahu got in the way of that strategy. Now for Obama, the best case scenario is for Netanyahu to lose in the upcoming Israeli election — and for this country’s attention to return to the superficial.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

Watch: Netanyahu’s speech

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