by Daniel Levy
Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu can claim a victory of sorts by having set the agenda and received wall-to-wall coverage for his congressional speech. He also succeeded in making his message rather than the empty seats the story. The speech is likely to play well in Israel, and today’s events will not harm his re-election prospects. But that is probably where the good news for Netanyahu ends.
The prime minister’s speech was rhetorically skillful, but his attempt to punch holes in a prospective nuclear deal as well as define a morning-after narrative regarding Iran fails to stand up to post-speech scrutiny.
Netanyahu’s tactics seem to focus on a possible 10-year sunset clause to a deal and to encourage Congress to make that a deal breaker. At the same time Netanyahu seems to be preparing for a post-deal reality and demanding that Iran continue to be treated exclusively as a terror state. For Netanyahu to claim that after 10 years Iran would be free to do as it pleases with a nuclear program was intentionally misleading. As an NPT member, Iran (unlike Israel) would continue to be subject to a range of restrictions that prevent WMD development. The weakness of Netanyahu’s pushback is that he is wrong about the negotiations, wrong about Iran, and wrong about the alternatives.
If Netanyahu was attempting to extend an olive branch to the Obama administration in the early part of his speech then he clearly withdrew it by depicting not only the president and his negotiating team but also the entire constellation of P5+1 world powers as naïve for either believing that Iran can change or for failing to secure a better deal.
But on closer inspection it is Netanyahu’s case that makes no sense. On the one hand he says that the Iranian regime has been around for 36 years and will not change in the next 10, while on the other he claims that the regime is so fragile and vulnerable to pressure that it is on the brink of collapse. Netanyahu argues that more pressure and insistence can deliver a better deal, but decades of negotiations say otherwise. When negotiations cease and sanctions increase Iran has upped its enrichment capacity and has been able to secure better terms.
The deal under discussion would put a stop to that. But Netanyahu continues to fabricate an alternative that exists in speeches only.
From previously insisting that the nuclear issue be treated as separately, Netanyahu now wants to introduce other issues as conditions for a deal, including Iran’s regional role. When a grand bargain was presented in the past, the Israelis rejected it, a position Netanyahu never disowned until apparently today. The implementation of the Joint Plan of Action proves that a deal can hold and be implemented, puncturing yet another Netanyahu talking point.
And although Iran should win no plaudits for its regional role, the attempt to depict it as the font of all evil is so reductionist as to be absurd. Netanyahu’s terrifying depiction of the consequences of a nuclear Iran in the region should be filed alongside his testimony in support of the Iraq war and its positive knock-on effects for the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s assertions of Iran’s genocidal intentions would be news to the 25,000 Jews who continue to live safely inside the Islamic Republic, the largest community outside Israel in the region. If he is looking for regional states with a history of expansionism he might look closer to home. Finally, Netanyahu’s riff on the threat to non-proliferation was worthy of an Oscar for chutzpah.
Netanyahu’s call to follow the path less travelled should be seized upon by Congress and the administration to move ahead with a deal that offers the best prospect for ensuring a verifiable freeze and partial rollback of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program as well as a path toward non-proliferation and greater regional stability. That is the path less travelled, not the tired reheated rhetoric of Bibi declaiming doomsday and dissing diplomacy. Finally, it is hard to think of a worse idea than an Israeli prime minister promoting a campaign whose logical endpoint is to send America off to another war in the Middle East.
Daniel Levy is the head of the Middle East and & North Africa program at European Council on Foreign Relations in London. He is also a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. From 2003 to 2004, Levy was an analyst for the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program. From 1999 to 2001, he was special adviser and head of Jerusalem Affairs in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He also served as senior policy adviser to Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, responsible for coordinating policy on issues including peace negotiations, civil and human rights, and the Palestinian minority in Israel. Levy was a member of the Israeli delegation to the 2001 Taba negotiations with the Palestinians and served on the Israeli negotiating team to the 1995 “Oslo B” agreement under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative, a joint Israeli-Palestinian effort suggesting a detailed model for a peace agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.