Paul Pillar

The Dressing Up of Bibi's Speech

There was so much that was improper about one political party giving a foreign leader a privileged platform in the U.S. Congress for the purpose of undermining U.S. foreign policy, and so much understandable criticism of this improper action, that what now sounds like a responsible and “sober” thing to say, as Shai Feldman presents himself as saying at The National Interest, is that we should not get distracted by all the commotion over how Benjamin Netanyahu came to give his speech, even though there may be grounds for criticizing his strategy in giving the speech, but instead should take seriously the substance of what he said. This posture sounds so reasonable that one can plausibly imagine Netanyahu and his American acolytes welcoming controversy over the unrespectable way in which the speech came about so that the substance of the speech would, by comparison, sound more respectable than it really was.

We should not be deceived by any such framing strategy. No matter how successfully we can put out of our minds the impropriety of giving any foreign leader this platform for this kind of purpose and the underhanded way the platform was given, the most sober possible appraisal of the speech is that it was (besides being in some respects a skillful oration) a scaremongering, internally inconsistent rant aimed at tying the hands of the makers of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama was stating the obvious when he remarked that Netanyahu offered no alternative to what the United States and its five foreign partners have been endeavoring to do for the past year and a half in negotiating an agreement to keep Iran's nuclear program peaceful.

Feldman states that a reading of the speech shows that “Israel's Prime Minister did not travel to Washington to prevent any deal with Iran.” Of course Netanyahu didn't say that was his purpose; if he had said that, he would have been blatantly and stupidly presenting himself as an incorrigible obstructionist. It makes much more tactical sense for him to sustain the impression that with the right terms he would accept an agreement with Iran—somewhat like how he has tried to sustain the impression that with the right terms he would accept an agreement creating a Palestinian state. But the only plausible interpretation of Netanyahu's behavior throughout on this issue is that preventing any agreement with Tehran is precisely his objective. Actions speak louder than words in understanding what he is trying to do, especially the action of trying hard to kill the best, and probably for the foreseeable future the only, opportunity to place restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.

So what is supposedly the alternative formula that Netanyahu would accept? According to Netanyahu, and to Feldman, it's a “better deal.” That's it; don't expect anything more specific. Of course everyone would like a “better deal”; what do you suppose the U.S. Secretary of State has been spending an enormous amount of time and effort trying to achieve in those long negotiations? Whatever are the terms that Netanyahu supposedly would bless, all we know is that they would not be whatever terms emerge from the current negotiations. And given the prime minister's history of goalpost-moving, we have good reason to expect that no agreement, no matter what the terms, would ever get his support. When he was displaying his cartoon bomb at the United Nations, stopping Iran's medium-level enrichment of uranium was supposedly the main concern, but he later denounced a preliminary agreement with Iran that achieved, along with other measures, exactly that objective. Once a one-year “breakout” time sounded like it would be acceptable to Netanyahu in comparison with the couple of months without an agreement, but now that the Obama administration appears to be sticking firmly to that one-year figure Netanyahu seems to want more (but just how much more we are left to wonder). Formerly the sine qua non of any agreement of Iran was to halt the advance of the nuclear program, but now that the negotiators seem on the brink of achieving a deal on that supposedly overriding issue, Netanyahu is talking more (as Feldman himself notes) about bringing in other issues involving other forms of Iranian behavior. And so on.

According to Netanyahu, achieving a “better deal” is a simple matter of pressuring Iran with more sanctions. But the entire history of the nuclear issue and of Iran's other behavior, along with the realities of human nature, strongly suggest that this notion is a fantasy. We have direct, compelling experience of failure with this; when the sanctions screws were applied to Iran after the United States rejected the last previous opportunity to strike a deal on the subject with Tehran, the result was substantial expansion of the Iranian nuclear program over the subsequent decade.

Nancy Pelosi accurately commented that Netanyahu's lecturing about threats from Iran and about nuclear proliferation was an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” It would be an insult to the intelligence of Benjamin Netanyahu to suggest that he doesn't understand fully that there is not some “better deal” that somehow would materialize and that rejection of whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations would mean having no agreement at all.

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