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Israelis See Netanyahu's U.S. Speech As Last-Ditch Pitch For Votes


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Since the moment it was announced that Israel's prime minister would address the U.S. Congress, Benjamin Netanyahu's visit has been mired in controversy. Senior U.S. officials say the visit smacks of partisanship and is destructive to the relationship between the two countries. Netanyahu is expected to slam President Obama's efforts to work out a nuclear deal with Iran, which has created even more tension with the administration. And all of this is happening on the eve of national elections in Israel where Netanyahu's job is on the line. For more, we're joined by Chemi Shalev. He is the U.S. editor of Haaretz; Israel's oldest daily newspaper. He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHEMI SHALEV: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First, just help us get a clear picture of the national elections in Israel coming up in a couple of weeks. How is Benjamin Netanyahu positioned? Is he a front-runner?

SHALEV: He's always a front-runner by virtue of the fact that his right-wing block has more than 60 seats. But he still needs to come out as the largest party. And that seems to be increasingly in danger in recent weeks. He is now slightly behind the Zionist camp party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. And the trend is not going in his way.

MARTIN: So what does this speech mean for him? What does he get out of it, and what does he potentially risk?

SHALEV: So there are two ways of looking at this. If you look at it the way he presents it, then this is his last-ditch effort to prevent what he describes as a very bad deal that the administration might be thinking of concluding with Iran. This is his last appeal to Congress to enact new sanctions against Iran and possibly block the deal. But most people, cynical as they are, view this as a last ditch election effort. And I think in the beginning when Netanyahu agreed to do this speech, I think he saw all the pluses and didn't see the minuses. But what has happened in the past three weeks is that there's this sense suddenly that he's not handling relations with the United States that well. That this speech should not have been handled in the way it's been handled. And quite possibly, it's hurting him at the polls.

MARTIN: But you say a lot of this does hinge on the current negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, to freeze that country's nuclear program. Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to accuse this speech to attack the administration on these negotiations. Is this something that most Israelis agree with him on?

SHALEV: I don't think Israelis trust the Iranians no matter what would be concluded with them. And I think that a majority of Israelis share Netanyahu's skepticism.

MARTIN: From where you sit and how you have seen this unfold, do you think the Obama administration overreacted?

SHALEV: I can't say that the administration overreacted in the sense that this has been simmering for a long time, their resentment of Netanyahu. What they see is Netanyahu siding with the Republicans and his playing internal politics in the United States. And there's also this issue that they think, perhaps, that he may indeed scuttle their efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. So I think there was both a calculated diplomatic response here but also a lot of pent-up resentment. We have here a clash of two strong personalities who do not get along with each other and who have apparently given up any hope of pretending that they do, which is the very rare situation for such two close allies as Israel and the United States.

MARTIN: Chemi Shalev is a correspondent and the U.S. editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SHALEV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.