Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday is a loathsome political event that America can’t remember the likes of. It was born of a conspiracy of sin between House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who despises his president, and an arrogant foreign leader who two weeks before an election is using Congress as a prop for his electoral needs.
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The two bridesmaids of this scandalous affair are using one another with boundless cynicism for their political needs while spewing filth on the rules of what is done and not done. This goes both for American politics and relations between allies.
And the content is no less worrying than the form. It’s amazing to see how the entire Israeli public sphere, including Netanyahu’s rivals, has accepted as holy writ Netanyahu’s conviction that a nuclear agreement with Iran is "bad, very bad" — and all this even before the final text is ready. Is it really that bad? Is the agreement really as bad for Israel as Netanyahu portrays it? Is another kind of agreement at all possible?
True, the deal is not optimal for Israel, far from it, but overall there are potential advantages. True, a few matters may need improving and explaining here and there, but in general it’s a reasonable compromise. As with every compromise, there are risks and prospects, disadvantages and benefits.
The devil of course is in the details, and some of them have not yet been finalized. But from what is known, in the opinion of most experts, not only is the compromise fair — a better one will be very hard to reach. There is only one alternative: continued sanctions, the collapse of the interim agreement, renewed enrichment, and in the end military conflict. It should be clear to everyone: America (including the Republicans) clearly prefers a reasonable compromise over a military conflict.
For Israel, the biggest disadvantage of the agreement is that it does not strip Iran of its nuclear assets. Netanyahu has repeatedly demanded “no enrichment,” but everyone knows this is just rhetoric with no political horizon or legal foundation. There is no source for such a demand in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Despite this disadvantage, the agreement still reduces and limits Iran’s nuclear assets to a lower level than in the interim agreement.
True, the agreement also grants Iran legitimacy as a nuclear threshold state. But we must remember that Iran was already a nuclear threshold state before it signed the interim agreement. In any case, the question of a threshold state is the original sin that derives from the ambiguity in the Nonproliferation Treaty itself. The treaty bans the development of nuclear weapons but does not explicitly ban member nations from becoming threshold states.
The agreement also contains unique advantages barely discussed in Israel. It clearly distances Iran from a nuclear bomb — from a few weeks as was the case in 2012 to about a year. Most importantly, it establishes a regime of safeguards and transparency for almost a generation. After that, Iran’s nuclear status will be the same as for any other nonnuclear state under the Nonproliferation Treaty. True, this may not be ideal, but that’s a problem for the very distant future, almost a generation away.
Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel — the only nuclear power in the Middle East — but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won’t be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d’tre has been taken away from him.
Avner Cohen, professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is the author of “Israel and the Bomb.”