In his long-anticipated, much-derided speech to Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered far more than an argument against the emerging nuclear deal with Iran. Subtly, carefully, he laid out the first sketchy outlines of a new architecture of power in the Middle East.
The first clear take-away: Netanyahu avoided doing more damage to Israel’s (and even more so, his own) standing in Washington. The challenge was immense. The nuclear deal is too important politically to the administration – indeed, Netanyahu’s own visit had transformed the substantive debate into a political one for many Democrats – for his audience to be swayed by platitudes. So he didn’t offer platitudes.
And he didn’t criticize President Barack Obama. Indeed, he lavished on Obama the sort of praise that Israeli leaders heap in Hebrew on the Jewish state’s greatest heroes: that Obama not only helped Israelis in times of military crisis or natural disaster, but that the vast extent of the president’s assistance to the Jewish state may never be fully known because it deals with secret matters. In Israeli political rhetoric, informed by the Jewish tradition’s lionizing of anonymous charity, there is no loftier sentiment.
Netanyahu’s speech danced between these political minefields, demonstrating that despite the pomp that accompanies such addresses in the Congress, he understood he was not speaking to a happy and grateful audience.
And so, after a few paragraphs of damage control, Netanyahu turned to the heart of his speech: a policy briefing to Congress that laid out in simple terms the mortal dangers that the proposed Iran deal might contain.
The White House’s insistence that the only alternative to the current deal is war was challenged unreservedly… The administration will have to sharpen its argument
The deal, Netanyahu argued, left Iran with too much nuclear infrastructure and lifted international monitoring too quickly, effectively ensuring Iran would be able to develop nuclear weapons within a few years. Iran’s regime was fragile, Netanyahu said, and would not rush to war if the talks failed. Its leaders, rather, would simply return to new talks under more favorable terms. “They need the deal a lot more than you do,” he insisted.
Netanyahu’s focus on substance had two advantages. The first: responses to his speech would have to address Iran’s nuclear program, and not limit themselves, like much of the political rhetoric in recent days, to chastising his decision to deliver the speech in the first place.
Second: he raised the bar ever so slightly for the Obama administration. The White House’s insistence that the only alternative to the current deal is war was challenged unreservedly before a joint meeting of Congress, aired live on American television and heard clearly around the world. The administration will have to sharpen the argument, make it more convincing – not only to Congress, but to the American people and Middle Eastern states wary of the deal.
But Netanyahu’s plain-speaking was not merely tactical. It had a strategic dimension that may have been his more important message on Tuesday. By implicitly acknowledging that the occasion was not a friendly one, Netanyahu highlighted in a way no press release could have managed the unusual access and support that Israel enjoys in Washington. This closeness is not, as some detractors of Israel instinctively assume, purchased by political donations. Money could not produce a similar devotion to the Saudi or Ukrainian causes. The prime minister’s audience included literally hundreds of American lawmakers who do not personally like him or his politics, but who believe his voice is a significant part of the conversation. Even as their faces soured at various points in his speech, they listened attentively, joined the standing ovations when Netanyahu praised American aid for Israel, and came away with at least a few questions for the White House.
Israel, Netanyahu effectively proclaimed, would serve as a strategic counterweight to Iran that the states of the region could depend on. Israel would not negotiate their interests away, because Iran was Israel’s mortal enemy. It could not leave the region because, unlike America, it lived there
That very access, more than anything he said, may have been the most important message delivered on Tuesday. If the prime minister is right on the developing deal, if indeed the White House and other western powers have badly miscalculated Iranian intentions or international monitoring capabilities, then the Middle East may soon be entering a new epoch, an age of nuclear standoffs in a region of crumbling states, where weapons of mass destruction won’t be the province of a single democratic power, but of every sheikh or theocrat with the industrial base to support it.
And if American acquiescence and miscalculation is seen by the governments of the region as being responsible for that outcome, trust in the American security umbrella will erode. If America allows Iran to come within striking distance of constructing a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, even Turkey, Azerbaijan and others will begin a profound reassessment of their current reliance on the United States.
Some will choose to nestle deeper into the American fold in the hope that the American umbrella would deter overt Iranian aggression. Some will pivot toward Iran, move under its shadow and hope to be protected from the ayatollahs’ designs through obeisance. Still others may take the more terrifying route, responding to an Iranian nuclear capability with the development of their own indigenous programs.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu may have begun the construction of a fourth option, an Israeli option. Israel, Netanyahu effectively proclaimed, would serve as a strategic counterweight to Iran that the states of the region could depend on. Israel would not negotiate their interests away, because Iran was Israel’s mortal enemy. It could not leave the region because, unlike America, it lived there. It had the will – “Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand,” Netanyahu said – and could provide the military and political might that could convince regional governments to choose resistance over acquiescence.
And, Netanyahu surely hopes, such an ally might make them less inclined to pursue their own nuclear option.
It was in this context that Netanyahu gave voice before Congress to the Arab cause.
“In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow,” he warned.
“Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Back by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Back by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world’s oil supply,” he said.
Netanyahu then urged that Western powers make three demands on Iran in exchange for easing sanctions. The very first demand: “stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East,” its “gobbling up” of other states in the region.
The other two demands – “stop supporting terrorism around the world” and “stop threatening to annihilate my country” – are Netanyahu’s usual complaints against Iran, and affect Israelis and Jews directly. His defense of the Arab states stands out because it has nothing to do with direct Israeli or Jewish interests, yet was important enough to come first in his meticulously crafted speech.
As with every political maneuver undertaken by Benjamin Netanyahu over a long and successful political career, Tuesday’s speech tried to do many things all at once. It was undoubtedly an election speech, timed to air on Israeli prime-time evening news just two weeks before Election Day on March 17. It was also an attempt to convince the White House to reconsider its acquiescence to the emerging deal, and simultaneously to convince Congress to challenge the White House on the same question. It was an address to the American people and other Western peoples laying out Israel’s case against Iranian aggression. It was even an address to Iranians, telling them that they were “heirs to one of the world’s great civilizations” who were “hijacked by religious zealots” in the 1979 revolution that established the ayatollahs’ regime.
America is the problem, Netanyahu is telling his prospective Middle Eastern allies, but in the very forum he chose to deliver the message he acknowledged that America, still the preeminent world power and Israel’s most significant ally, remains part of the solution
But in all those arenas, Netanyahu knows his influence is limited. Israelis are not voting on the Iran issue, but on the economy; the White House is unlikely to reverse course because of arguments it has heard hundreds of times, nor is Congress likely to swing dramatically against the White House for Netanyahu’s sake.
It was to another audience, to the Sunni Arab peoples and governments who watch in despair the unchecked ascent of Shiite Iran, that Netanyahu dedicated the most persuasive and actionable part of his speech. Israel will hold the line even if America fails us on Iran, he told the Arabs.
As Arab leaders know well, Israel is not the only regional power battling ferociously against the impending nuclear deal – it is merely the only one that can take its case publicly to the heart of the world’s most powerful capital, even in brazen defiance of the wishes of the American president.
The location of Netanyahu’s speech was as important as its content in delivering this message to the Arab world. Israel would defy Iran not only with its advanced warplanes and intelligence agencies, but with its most famous strategic asset – the ability to deliver its case before a joint meeting of the United States Congress.
And therein lies a special irony. America is the problem, Netanyahu is telling his prospective Middle Eastern allies, but in the very forum he chose to deliver the message he acknowledged that America, still the preeminent world power and Israel’s most significant ally, remains part of the solution. Even as he presented the first glimpse into Israel’s vision of a post-American regional order, Netanyahu offered an unintended testament to America’s enduring significance.