If Netanyahu's Right, Why Is He So Wrong?

Even if he is correct about Iran, Netanyahu's steps have minimized Israel's ability to exert influence, and his moves on Obama's turf have politicized U.S.-Israel relations so much that no one seriously addresses his points any more.

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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the Western Wall during a visit in Jerusalem's Old City, Feb. 28, 2015.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the Western Wall during a visit in Jerusalem's Old City, Feb. 28, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Over the weekend the Prime Minister’s Office released a video showing Benjamin Netanyahu in his study preparing Tuesday’s speech to Congress. A source at the residence says that not much Hebrew has been heard around the prime minister in recent days. Many of the people around him speak American English in a heavy Republican accent.

One of the key people helping craft the speech is Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who has been in Jerusalem the past few days. Dermer is a persona non grata in Washington these days, the man who concocted the speech idea with House Speaker John Boehner, behind the White House’s back.

But not only Dermer is in Jerusalem. Netanyahu has apparently recruited American consultants to help write the speech, to help him compose a text with maximum appeal.

Like every Israeli politician, Netanyahu likes to be photographed surrounded by army officers in fatigues, with plenty of maps around. But photos of him penning a speech reflect his true self much more accurately.

For Netanyahu, words and rhetoric are the essence of his existence. His attitude could be summarized by borrowing from the sound bite where he mocked the left’s approach to land concessions: “If you haven’t delivered a speech you’ve haven’t done anything.”

We can assume that in the coming days we’ll see much more of Netanyahu and the blue pen in that photo. His spokesmen will tell us how busy he is making last-minute changes. His mouthpiece, the newspaper Israel Hayom, will probably trumpet this address for the umpteenth time as “the speech of his life.”

Even before hearing the address, we can assume he’ll stick to habit and include some kitsch. There will be artificial historical analogies and visual gimmicks.

In the past he compared Iran to the biblical archenemy Amalek. This time, with Purim coming up, he has already made comparisons between the Persians of yore and the Iranians of today. It’s as if he were Mordechai confronting the evil Haman seeking to wipe out the Jews.

In this analogy, U.S. President Barack Obama probably plays the role of King Ahasuerus. One wonders who’ll play Queen Esther.

Netanyahu is going to Washington with the declared intention of warning Congress about a bad and dangerous deal with Iran. Some of his arguments hold plenty of truth.

The pending agreement is worse than many people, including supporters of the diplomatic process, envisaged. The U.S. administration loosened many of its red lines during the negotiations, and on some issues it completely folded. The Americans not only worried about a breakdown of the negotiations, but showed their fears.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continued labeling the United States an enemy, claiming that Washington needs the negotiations much more than Tehran does. The Americans, in their wobbling, proved him right. As time passed, the Iranians squeezed more concessions out of Washington.

There are many worrisome clauses in the agreement that’s shaping up, the chief one being what happens when it expires. If at that time all restrictions on Iran are lifted, what will prevent the regime in 2030 from assembling tens of thousands of centrifuges and proceeding to enrich uranium?

The White House has not yet responded to this basic question, which has become the weak spot in the agreement. Senior officials stress that after restrictions are lifted in 15 years, Iran will still be bound by the treaty preventing the proliferation of nuclear arms. But this treaty has already been repeatedly breached by Iran.

For better or worse, the imminent agreement buys time, maybe 10, 15 or even 20 years. Senior U.S. officials say that by then Khamenei will no longer be around and there will be a chance for dramatic changes in the regime. But hopes, wishes and learned assessments can’t replace a work plan.

A still from a video released by Netanyahu's office to Channel 2 of the premier writing his upcoming speech to the U.S. Congress. Credit: Haim Tzach/GPO

So if Netanyahu is right, why is he so wrong? First, because there is no such thing as a good agreement with Iran. As in almost every security-diplomatic issue, the choices are between bad, very bad and disastrous.

Netanyahu has not yet produced convincing arguments on why the alternative he proposes is less bad and how it would lead to a peaceful resolution. Imposing additional sanctions at this stage, as proposed by Netanyahu, would ruin the talks and trigger a rush toward an Iranian military nuclear capability — and possibly war.

Second, Netanyahu is mistaken in his tactics. Over the last six years he has maneuvered Israel into a corner in which it has few options. He decided against a military option, and today this isn’t a viable option. He failed to forge an intimate relationship with Obama, instead creating a continuous crisis with the White House leaving Israel no diplomatic clout.

His last weapon is the speech. Despite what he thinks, a speech is not equivalent to deeds. In this case it’s more of a demonstration.

It won’t stop the bad deal with Iran. Even if he’s right, his steps have minimized Israel’s ability to exert influence. His moves in Obama’s backyard have so severely politicized U.S.-Israeli relations that no one takes his points seriously anymore. Those points sound like spin for his election campaign.

The tragedy is that the speech hampered any bipartisan support against the deal. The House and Senate have friends of Israel who oppose the agreement and could have influenced Obama. But now they’ll keep silent.

Even though Netanyahu has made Iran his highest priority, he has failed to devise a strategy in which Israel’s interests are maximally protected in an agreement with Tehran.

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