Bibi's Speech: A More Sober Assessment

Bibi's message to Congress this week was important, even if the manner in which he went about it was risky.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has many admirers in the United States–at least if judged by the twenty six standing ovations he received from members of the Senate and the House of Representatives during a speech to a joint meeting of Congress last Tuesday.

Conversely, many other Americans were infuriated by his frontal attack on a serving president and on a central pillar of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. These reactions were only exacerbated by Netanyahu’s decision to deliver his message on the president’s home turf. Both viewpoints were reinforced by Netanyahu’s performance in which his meticulously written speech was perfectly delivered. His admirers were invigorated while his detractors emerged even more annoyed by his misdeeds. Both schools, however, have something in common: their emotions seemed to prevent them from carefully considering the content of Netanyahu’s speech.

Now that a few days have passed and the immediate, reflexive and entirely predictable reactions to the speech are behind us, a more balanced and dispassionate analysis may be possible. Such an analysis should focus on two questions: First, what was the thrust of Netanyahu’s argument and was there anything new and reasonable in his speech that deserves sober consideration? Second, were Netanyahu’s objectives worth the risks and costs entailed in his bold move to inject himself into the heart of a U.S. internal debate regarding an agreement that has yet to be concluded?

A careful reading of Netanyahu’s speech makes one thing clear: Israel’s Prime Minister did not travel to Washington to prevent any deal with Iran. Indeed, it is Netanyahu who seemed to be fighting the false dichotomy between a “bad deal” and “no deal” by making it clear that he would support another possibility: a better deal. Moreover he seemed to accept the point made a day earlier by U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who described the demand for no enrichment by Iran as unrealistic. Not once in his speech did Netanyahu repeat his earlier demand for a “red line” of zero enrichment. Instead, he posited the more limited objective of rolling back Iran’s enrichment capacity “well-beyond the current proposal.” And, he reinforced his new, more pragmatic approach by raising the possibility of a deal with Iran that Israel would not like but could live with.

Nor was the approach that Netanyahu presented to dealing with the duration of the final agreement unreasonable. This issue became much more sensitive because of a very important concession that the P-5+1 made in the interim accord reached with Iran in November 2013, the Joint Plan of Action. The accord granted that after the expiration of a final deal, Iran would be treated as any non-nuclear weapons member state of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Or, put more bluntly, after the final agreement expires, Iran will be treated as if it were Japan.

Not surprisingly, since Iran remains committed to Israel’s destruction, and since it continues to support movements like Hamas and Hezbollah that strive actively to fulfill this goal, it is difficult for Netanyahu–or for any other Israeli–to accept that Iran would one day be treated as if it were Japan. But again, Netanyahu shied away from reiterating an “all or nothing” approach. Instead, he seemed to be making two points. First, a decade–the period of time mentioned by Susan Rice as the acceptable duration for the agreement–is too short. That is not a dogmatic position–it was meant to press the Obama administration to hold the line for a longer duration than it now seems to accept.

However, it is Netanyahu’s second point about this issue that is more important: namely, that if America hopes that the implemented nuclear agreement would encourage Iran to return to the so-called “community of nations,” the hypothesis should be tested. Thus, if it turns out that the hypothesis was correct and Iran abandons its support of terrorism and its commitment to Israel’s destruction, the agreement would expire and Iran would be treated as a normal state. But if it turns out that Iran has not changed course–thus refuting the driving hypothesis–the arrangements agreed upon in the final deal will remain in effect. Or, in Netanyahu’s words: “if the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed, at the very least they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires. If Iran changes its behavior, the restrictions [on its nuclear program] would be lifted. If Iran doesn't change its behavior, the restrictions should not be lifted.”

Here again, Netanyahu avoided making the unreasonable demand that the arrangements incorporated in the final agreement would be applied indefinitely. Instead, he suggested making the expiration of such arrangements contingent on Iran eventually ending its commitment to supporting efforts to destroy a sovereign member state of the United Nations. Thus, on this issue as well, Israel’s prime minister did not suggest rejecting any deal with Iran; instead he seemed to be pushing for a better deal.

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