March 9, 2015 - Netanyahu’s speech to Congress: looking beyond the commentary heard thus far

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This week, Alpher discusses what was wrong with Netanyahu’s speech before the US Congress last week; what were some possibly positive contributions in the speech from the standpoint of Israelis who don’t support the prime minister politically; what issues the event raised; and significant political dilemmas framed by the speech.

Q. What was wrong with Netanyahu’s speech before the US Congress last week?

A. It was delivered in the wrong place, at the wrong time. It seriously jeopardized the US-Israeli strategic relationship by insulting the office of the president of the United States, playing party politics in Washington, and mixing Israel’s election campaign with US politics.

Besides, the speech was full of schmaltz--throw-away lines designed to prompt meaningless standing ovations at the beginning and the end. And kitsch: even, God forbid, Holocaust-kitsch. Still, in between there was some substance of interest.

Q. Really? Can you point to any positive contribution in the speech from the standpoint of Israelis who don’t support the prime minister politically?

A. For a long time, Netanyahu’s focus on Iran has centered strictly on the nuclear issue. In this regard, in this speech he had nothing really new to say and little to offer by way of an alternative to the US game plan. Moreover, he consistently ignored the achievements thus far of the US-led effort to reduce Iran’s nuclear profile: reducing stockpiles of enriched uranium (remember Netanyahu’s hourglass at the UN? It’s emptier now), modifying the Arak heavy water reactor, extending and expanding the inspection regime, etc.

But this time, Netanyahu also discussed Tehran’s negative non-nuclear regional activities and rhetoric. Here he touched in particular on three issues, at least two of which also reflect the anxieties of Israel’s moderate Arab neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia: Iran’s support for terrorism, its drive for regional hegemony (“Iran now dominates four Arab capitals”--only a slight exaggeration), and its repeated high-level threats to destroy Israel.

In the eyes of Israel and its neighbors, Washington seems inclined to ignore Tehran’s incitement and support for terrorism, and to acquiesce in and at times even tacitly cooperate with Iran’s military support for the governments of Iraq and Syria. Note that just last week US Chief of the General Staff Dempsey spoke favorably about Iran’s military role in Iraq. True, at the same time Secretary of State Kerry was reassuring the Saudis that the US remained wary of Iran’s activities in the region. But Netanyahu summed up the concerns of Israel and its neighbors by suggesting that a nuclear deal could be more acceptable to them if it was conditioned on Iranian acceptance of the demand to cease its activities and statements in these three spheres; in other words, if the US dealt with Iran’s Shiite Islamist extremism the way it deals with manifestations of Sunni Islamist extremism.

Seen against the backdrop of such a problematic congressional performance, this particular dimension of Netanyahu’s rhetoric was significant and welcome.

Q. At the broadest strategic level, what issues did the event raise?

A. The “event” inevitably placed on the agenda quite a few strategic dilemmas merely by dint of having happened. Because it was mainly political theater, it did not resolve them. Still, they are worthy of note.

At the substantive strategic level, will a US-Iran nuclear deal provoke, postpone or work against a Middle East nuclear arms race? Netanyahu argues that it would provoke countries like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to go nuclear, but the precise opposite could also easily be argued.

Is there a viable alternative at this point to an agreement--even a bad agreement? Washington argues that to present tougher conditions would mean scuttling the entire process, because Tehran cannot concede much more. Netanyahu wants to demand more, without addressing the question what happens if Washington is right.

This connects with another basic dilemma. The US argues that the Iranian regime can be rendered more moderate on an incremental basis: start with the nuclear, thereby empowering Iranian moderates led by Rowhani and Zarif, then work on other aspects of Iran’s behavior such as human rights, support for terrorism and the like. Israel, like its Sunni Arab neighbors, argues that Iran as constituted is not likely to behave more moderately, that Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards will discard Rowhani once he has negotiated away the current effective sanctions regime, and that under these circumstances Tehran must be “contained”, not rewarded, unless and until change begins from within.

These considerations, in turn, raise another central issue. Many in the region, including in Israel, suspect that the Obama administration has concluded that the Middle East’s dysfunctional Arab regimes are a hopeless foundation upon which to base US policy, whereas Iran is far more stable and deeply rooted and accordingly must be cultivated by the US as a primary anchor for its approach to the region in the future. To the extent this is indeed an accurate description of the administration’s thinking, it harks back to the US-Iran relationship during the Shah’s reign, prior to 1979, and presupposes that the past 36 years have constituted an aberration of sorts whose demise is currently being negotiated. Is this indeed the case, or is the Islamic Republic with its extremist approach to Israel and the region--rather than the Shah--the “real thing”, the real Iran?

In the event of an agreement, will Israel attack Iran on its own? Most of what Netanyahu said implied that Israel will see no alternative but to acquiesce in a “bad” agreement. But he closed his speech with the warning that “Israel will stand. . . alone”. What did he mean? Given the well known reluctance of the Israeli security establishment to contemplate military action against Iran’s nuclear project, was this just the sort of eloquent but empty posturing we have come to associate with Netanyahu?

Q. Did the speech also frame significant political dilemmas?

A. Very much so. For one, Netanyahu’s appearance confronts us, head-on, with a triangular link between the Likud, the Republican Party, and the big money provided to finance both by people like gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson.

This leads to the next question: can Netanyahu actually reconfigure the Israeli-American Jewish dynamic away from its traditional base in the Democratic Party and close links with American minorities and give it a new Republican orientation? In many ways, that appears to have been one of the purposes of this speech and to be one of the key missions of Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.

Moving a step further, suppose the Senate now successfully musters a 67 percent majority to override an Obama veto of a congressional attempt to dictate tougher conditions regarding nuclear negotiations with Iran. Will Netanyahu be credited by the Republicans and blamed by the administration? How will this unprecedented Israeli intervention in the heart and soul of the American political system affect long-term Israeli-American strategic relations?

Finally, will the Netanyahu speech affect Israeli public opinion on election day, March 17? Early indications are in the negative. But recent Israeli elections have been notorious for last minute surprises at the polls.

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