Addressing a packed joint session of Congress, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unequivocal.
“This is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”
He warned that if Israel believed a nuclear deal with Iran was unacceptable, it would reserve the right to take unilateral military action. “I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”
Still, Mr. Netanyahu also attempted to defuse the boiling partisanship his visit has engendered. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political, that was never my intention.” And he said that Israelis “appreciate all that President Obama has done for Israel.”
In essence, this speech was a great balancing act. While Mr. Netanyahu knows he needs America at his side, he also believes a nuclear Iran risks a nuclear “final solution” that would turn Israel into dust. It could mean a second Holocaust. So Mr. Netanyahu had to persuade the Congress to support his viewpoint, whilst maintaining a semblance of respect for the White House.
In attempting to bring Congress into alignment with his perspective, Netanyahu frequently emphasized American exceptionalism. Pulling at the heartstrings of lawmakers, he contrasted America’s founding documents with those of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Noting the stark dichotomy between America’s freedom of the individual and Iran’s theological tyranny, he issued an ideological call to arms. “We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of subjugation and terror.”
But the prime minister was also keen to offer specifics on why he disagrees with Mr. Obama’s negotiating strategy. It would, he said, allow Iran to retain its vast nuclear infrastructure and shorten its “breakout time” to gain a nuclear weapon. Using the example of North Korea — which has weaponized its nuclear program and balked at international condemnation — he noted that “Inspectors document violations, they don’t stop them.” As he put it, “[President Obama’s] deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, it would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons. Lots of them.”
Mr. Netanyahu also heaped scorn on the ten-year sunset clause on limitations to Iran’s nuclear program (widely reported to form the cornerstone of President Obama’s negotiations). He described the timeframe as the “blink of an eye in the life of our children.” He later expanded on this need for a durable deal, warning Congress “not to sacrifice the future for the present; not to ignore aggression in the hopes of gaining an illusory peace.”
Nevertheless, the prime minister also tried to persuade Congress that Iran’s continued nuclear development would lead to an array of other security challenges, especially in regards to Middle Eastern politics. Noting Iran’s growing power in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen (something the Sunni monarchies fear equally), Netanyahu warned that a bad deal would inspire further aggression from Iran. He also suggested that with their diverging and hostile interpretations of political Islam, the Sunni Arab monarchies would likely respond to Iran’s nuclear accession with nuclear programs of their own. That concern is worthy of our deep contemplation. Consider how Middle Eastern politics — hardly stable today — might develop amidst a nuclear arms race.
Ultimately, Mr. Netanyahu knows that the Obama administration would likely ignore his words. He knows that his White House bridge is burned. So his effort today was about getting Congress into his corner. If and when President Obama reaches a nuclear deal with Iran, the Israeli Prime Minister wants Congress to scrutinize that deal aggressively. He hopes that such scrutiny might deter a bad deal, or at scupper its implementation.
Based on the reaction he received in the chamber, you wouldn’t bet against him.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., writes for the Daily Telegraph. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and holds the Tony Blankley chair at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets.