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Netanyahu’s speech gets raves — and serious policy questions go unanswered

Did the Israeli prime minister mean to imply that Israel reserves the right to take unilateral action, perhaps to bomb the facilities housing the Iranian nuclear program?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

In his speech Tuesday to a joint session of Congress (minus those Democrats who boycotted in protest against the fact that the speech and visit had not been coordinated with the Obama White House), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the deal emerging from talks with Iran to forestall the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal would be a “bad deal,” so bad that no deal would be better.

The talks, between Iran and the so-called “P-5 plus one” (which refers to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) have not been concluded. Therefore, there is no actual final deal to assess. But Netanyahu claimed to know enough about the negotiations to conclude that the deal would not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and in fact would “all but guarantee” that Iran does acquire nuclear weapons.

The deal is believed to create a 10-year period during which, in exchange for relief from powerful economic sanctions, Iran would agree to allow highly invasive inspections of its nuclear program to ensure that it was not crossing the line into the development of nuclear weapons.

A better deal, Netanyahu said, would require Iran to give up and disassemble its nuclear energy infrastructure, stop expressing its desire to destroy Israel, stop supporting terrorist groups and stop interfering in the affairs of its neighbors.

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Instead of being a “farewell to arms,” Netanyahu said, this deal would be a “farewell to arms control.”

The alternative, Netanyahu said, is not war but a much better deal. The idea seems to be to back up from where things stand and go back to many issues that have already been at least tentatively settled and insist on more Iranian concessions. Said Netanyahu:

“If Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff. They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”

In its immediate aftermath, Netanyahu’s speech received generally rave reviews as to how well-written and well-delivered it was. David Horowitz of the Times of Israel called it “the speech of his life.”

On substance, views were much more mixed.

‘Not one new idea’

The Obama White House characterized the speech as containing “literally not one new idea,” consisting of “all rhetoric but no plan of action” to forestall Iran’s acquisition of nukes. President Obama himself said: “The prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.”

Perhaps not. Or perhaps, when Netanyahu said “Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand,” he meant to imply however ambiguously that Israel reserves the right to take unilateral military action, perhaps to bomb the facilities housing the Iranian nuclear program, if they United States and its allies seem to be relying on a bad deal that was worse than no deal.

A few comments from journalists and experts before and after the speech:

Charles Krauthammer on Fox News called it “an extraordinary speech” and hailed Netanyahu for that passage just above about Israel’s willingness to act alone. Krauthammer definitely viewed it as a threat to take unilateral military action and added that the standing ovation Netanyahu received after that line would be used to argue that at least the U.S. Congress would support such a course.

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On Washingtonpost.com, Paul Waldman challenged Netanyahu’s logic: “To call that position ‘absurd’ is too kind. You don’t have to be some kind of foreign policy whiz to grasp that there’s something weird about arguing that 1) Iran is a nation run by genocidal maniacs; 2) they want nuclear weapons so they can annihilate Israel; and 3) the best way to stop this is to abandon negotiations to limit their nuclear program and just wait to see what they do. But that’s the position Netanyahu and his supporters in the Republican Party are now committed to.”

Before the speech, on CNN, Fareed Zakaria said that for 25 years Netanyahu has been calling Iran’s breakthrough to nuclear weapons “imminent.” For the last 15 years, he said Iran was a year away from getting the bomb — in some cases he said only a few months away, even though Israeli intelligence officials have said they disagreed. Zakaria said Netanyahu needed to give a speech that “feels a little more credible than 25 years of predictions that have been wrong.”

‘Toxic’ relationship

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the Netanyahu-Obama relationship was “toxic,” adding “it started out bad and went downhill from there.

In his never-ending quest to elevate the discourse, Rush Limbaugh said: “You look at how Obama has treated and does treat Netanyahu, you would think that Netanyahu was a white policeman from Ferguson, Missouri. … Or that he was one of the cops that choked Eric Garner or he was one of the jurors in the Trayvon Martin case.”

In an interview after the speech, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who, as a recent chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee has plenty of inside knowledge, complained that “what he didn’t say is what would happen if there is no deal.” But Feinstein agreed with Netanyahu that the 10-year term of the likely deal was too short.

As quoted in the Jerusalem Post, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said afterwards that as a friend of Israel, she was near tears during his speech, calling it “an insult to the intelligence of the United States.” She said she was “saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran.”

The full text of the Netanyahu speech, via the Washington Post, is here.