Viewed in isolation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last week was masterful. It projected superficial respect for President Obama (if you overlook his trashing the negotiation process to date and speaking to Congress in the midst of the Iranian talks) and expressed appreciation for everything the Obama Administration has done in Israel’s behalf. In fact, he said, there are efforts the President has made of which the public isn’t even aware. Then Netanyahu proceeded to explain why the still incomplete negotiation to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb is such a bad deal.
The most important problem is that the yet-to-be finalized agreement, if consummated along the lines Netanyahu surmises, would last only ten years. As he himself said, that end date may seem like a long time, but it’s a nanosecond in the sweep of history. We could be right back to Square One, with Iran probably having secretly increased its nuclear capacity, guaranteeing its hegemony in the Middle East and becoming an even greater threat worldwide.
So far, so clear. But important questions remain unanswered. What specific alternative does Bibi propose that can realistically be achieved? If the United States ends up opting for no deal instead of what he calls a bad deal, the nations allied with us in imposing sanctions, especially China and Russia, will undoubtedly drop their sanctions. No more sanctions, no limits on Iran’s nuclear development, and the United States will have no more leverage. And Iran will march forthwith to finish its development of a nuclear bomb.
As Roger Cohen wrote March 6 in the New York Times, the alternative to the nuclear limits and regular inspections that seem to be under negotiation may end up being all-out war. This, to put it mildly, would be counter-productive and eliminate the possibility of anyone developing relationships with more moderate Iranians of a younger generation.
I am not naïve. I do not see this as a Kumbaya moment. We can’t trust the Iranians, and we have to hope that the final agreement will provide a scalable, gradual lifting of the sanctions based on steps taken by Iran and verified. Deadline for that framework agreement is March 24th.
I am really put off by an article in this week’s Forward outlining Israel’s contempt for the Americans, its belief that, because Americans are pro-Israel, they can be sold anything. When George Bush was President, Netanyahu was quoted as saying, “America is a thing that can be easily moved, moved in the right direction…” Cohen also reminds us that Netanyahu called Yitzhak Rabin a Chamberlain for his role in the Oslo Accords. As E. J. Dionne noted in the Washington Post, notwithstanding his initial praise of Obama, the net effect of the speech implies the President is “foolish and on the verge of being duped.”
It’s not particularly important to me that Netanyahu was using the timing of this trip to buoy his own support in the March 17th Israeli election. I can even take at face value that he truly believes he was doing what is best for Israel (more immediately at risk from Iran than is the United States) and that he felt this speech at this time might result in strengthening the deal being negotiated. We should never forget that Iran is pledged to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and does all it can to support terrorists working toward that goal. That’s why the Obama negotiation should strive to dismantle Iran’s non-peaceful nuclear capacity, not just freeze it in place allowing Iran to ramp it up a few years down the road.
Partisan congressional intervention in a President’s foreign policy may not be the norm we were taught in our junior high civics courses, but it’s nothing new. Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright injected himself into Ronald Reagan’s war in Nicaragua. Democrats went to Iraq to forestall George Bush’s moves. As the NY Times’ Peter Baker points out, examples abound. But partisan intervention can make for messy foreign policy making. (And that includes Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who arranged the visit, acting more like the Republican operative he used to be.) I’m unaware of a previous instance when the opposing party specifically intervened by an open letter to the leaders of a foreign state with which the President was negotiating. This grandstanding goes too far.
For all of Netanyahu’s lip service about Obama in his speech to Congress, Israelis don’t view Obama as a reliable ally. And Obama has made it clear he doesn’t like Netanyahu. We don’t know what the final details of the negotiated settlement will be. But no arrangement should involve another movable “red line,” as Obama provided in Syria. We should remember Ronald Reagan’s philosophy in successfully negotiating a nuclear deal with the Soviet Union. What we certainly need is a hefty dose of “trust, but verify.”
I welcome your comments in the section below.