Strip away the politics associated with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and this simple reality remains: Netanyahu had an urgent, much needed message to deliver about Iran. This morning Netanyahu delivered that message forcefully, persuasively, and to great applause from members of both political parties.
A few dozen Democratic members, including a hugely disproportionate number of African-American congressman but also (according to Fox News) half a dozen Jewish members, skipped the speech. Joe Biden was also absent.
However, the vast majority of Democrats attended, and they frequently were on their feet clapping. Netanyahu rewarded them with tributes to President Obama and a shout-out to Harry Reid.
Had we not been informed about the absentees, we would have thought there were none.
As for President Obama, he reportedly didn’t watch the speech, choosing instead to participate in some sort of video-conference. I hope he passes on Sports Center tonight in favor watching a replay of Netanyahu’s address. As we will see below, the Prime Minister had a special message for the President.
Netanyahu’s message to Congress and the American people was straightforward, analytic, and difficult to dispute on almost all fronts. First, Iran is the implacable enemy of both Israel and the U.S. Second, Iran is on the march. Instead of trying to join the community of nations, the regime is gobbling up nations, as Netanyahu put it.
Third, the nuclear deal that, according to publicly available information, is likely to emerge would “all but guarantee that Iran gets nuclear weapons” for two reasons. First, it would leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and therefore with the ability to breakout to a nuclear weapon in a year or less. It could break out even more quickly if it cheated on inspections, as it has consistently done in the past.
Second, because the deal reportedly will expire in ten years or so, it would leave Iran with the ability to obtain nukes without violating a single provision of the deal. When the deal expires, Iran could have as many as 190,000 centrifuges (the number the regime says it aspires to), plus the missiles needed to deliver nuclear warheads anywhere in the world. Thus, Iran would be weeks away from being a major nuclear power.
Netanyahu addressed the two rationales put forth to defend the deal: (1) that Iran’s behavior will change for the better after a deal and (2) that there is no alternative to the deal other than war. The first rationale is absurd on its face. As Netanyahu said, with the lifting of sanctions, the Iranian regime will be strengthened, and thus have even less incentive to change for the better than it does now.
As for alternatives, Netanyahu argued that the alternative to a bad deal is a much better deal. Noting that Iran needs the deal more than the U.S. does, he predicted that if the U.S. holds out for better terms, with the threat of sanctions in the foreground, Iran will make significant concessions.
This was the only part of the speech that didn’t entirely persuade me.
Netanyahu concluded with his message for President Obama. Invoking the holocaust and noting that for the first ten in 100 generations the Jewish people can defend themselves, Netanyahu promised that “even if Israel has to stand alone, it will stand.”
His meaning was clear. If Obama signs an unsatisfactory deal, Israel reserves the right to take military action against Iran. And given Netanyahu’s passionate words about the existential threat Iran poses to Israel, the implication is that Israel might very well exercise that right.
Obama hopes that with Israeli elections about to take place, Netanyahu won’t be around to exercise it. But he can’t count on the defeat of Netanyahu, and I imagine that this speech, so enthusiastically received by both American political parties, improves Netanyahu’s electoral prospects.
Obama knows for certain, moreover, that his days in office are numbered. Thus, even if he’s confident that he can keep Netanyahu at bay, he should understand that Israel might very well “void” a bad deal long before its expiration date.
Will the combination of congressional pressure and Netanyahu’s promise to act alone if necessary induce Obama to drive a tougher bargain? I doubt it.
Will Netanyahu’s speech induce Congress to do what it can to obstruct a bad deal? Here, the prospects are better, now that the case against such a deal has been laid out so forcefully.
In any event, this was a speech that needed to be made and a message that needed to be delivered. Speaker Boehner should be applauded for giving Netanyahu this opportunity and Congress should be applauded for welcoming Netanyahu so dramatically.
NOTE: This post has been modified slightly to remove a disparaging description of President Obama’s confrontational style.