Israeli Prime Minister one true idol is Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s standard-bearer during the Second World War and a man that history has commonly credited with being one of the most impressive and rhetorically gifted statesmen of the 20th century. In fact, Netanyahu’s affinity for Churchill is so well-renowned that House Speaker John Boehner – the man who extended Bibi an invitation to speak at a joint meeting of Congress on the Iranian nuclear negotiations – reportedly gave the Israeli Prime Minister a bust of the former British Conservative Party leader as a gift before his address.
By the time that Netanyahu finished delivering his speech to Congress on Tuesday, March 3, he shared a special bond with his icon: Like Winston Churchill before him, Netanyahu has addressed the United States Congress on three separate occasions. And, for all the controversy and politics that surrounded the roughly hour-long address to hundreds of U.S. lawmakers and hundreds of additional guests, Netanyahu’s third speech was a highly “Churchillian” effort. The prime minister was passionate throughout his address, seemingly humbled by being greeted so warmly as he walked to the lectern, and absolutely satisfied that his central message was heard across the United States: Iran is such a dangerous and unpredictable regime that even the most rudimentary of nuclear weapons programs on Iranian soil is a bridge to far for the State of Israel.
It took less than five seconds after the conclusion of the address for people across the political spectrum – Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives – to analyze Netanyahu’s every word. Netanyahu’s supporters viewed the performance as one of the most important speeches that a world leader has made so far this century. Opponents were equally zealous in their characterizations; Fred Kagan, a highly respected military historian, described Netanyahu’s gambit as “shallow, evasive, short on logic, and long on cynicism.” Netanyahu, goes this argument, was merely politicking in the United States and using the Congress as a prop to boost his re-election chances later this month.
More important than style, however, was the substance of the address. And on this score, the Israeli prime minister didn’t do as well as his sharp and engaging rhetorical flourish.
For those who have been following the P5+1 negotiations with the Iranians, Bibi’s presumptions and statements were riddled with exaggerations and falsehoods, and relied far more on emotion than fact. Indeed, either Netanyahu is getting bad information from his advisers about what the United States and its negotiating partners are trying to achieve in the negotiations, or he doesn’t want a negotiated agreement at all. Judging by his remarks, you would be forgiven for believing that U.S. negotiators are naïve and idiotic amateurs who are giving away the store to the detriment of the entire region’s stability.
Netanyahu’s concern about the negotiations are based on two basic premises: 1) that Iran would be allowed to build up an industrial-sized nuclear infrastructure without any limitations after the agreement expires in 10 years, and 2) the Obama administration is negotiating as if it holds the weaker hand. Although both of these points are certainly valid from Netanyahu’s perspective – how can they not, given the animosity that Tehran demonstrates towards Israel on a daily basis? – but they also happen to be unfair to the diplomats who are doing the negotiating. Secretary of State John Kerry and Undersecretary Wendy Sherman are not junior officials getting played, but rather two level-headed professionals who struck an accord a year and a half ago that provided the strongest international inspections that Tehran has experienced to date.
Both before and immediately after the November 2013 interim nuclear agreement was signed between Iran and the P5+1, the Israeli prime minister referred to the package as “the deal of the century for Iran,” and “a very bad deal” that would force the collapse of the international sanctions regime. Yet since that “very bad deal” was written into stone in November 2013, critical aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons program have been frozen and other components have been dialed back. While this may appear to be an Obama administration talking point, it also happens to be fact: Because of the acumen of the U.S. negotiating team, Iran cannot enrich uranium at the 5 percent level above an agreed-upon cap; Tehran’s stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium is down to zero; no construction has occurred at the Arak plutonium facility; IAEA monitors are walking around Iran’s nuclear facilities with an unprecedented degree of access; international inspectors are getting a tremendous amount of information that they previously lacked before the interim deal was put into effect; and the Joint Plan of Action has provided all stakeholders who have an interest in resolving this issue peacefully with an opportunity to build upon the momentum towards a comprehensive accord.
Bibi Netanyahu took a nearly identical line during his Tuesday address to Congress. “My friends, for over a year, we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal,” the prime minister said. “Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.”
This part of the speech may have received a rousing standing ovation from the audience, but it’s obscured by what Netanyahu seems to be advocating: more of the same. Netanyahu’s alternative to a negotiated agreement with the Iranians is tantamount to surrender. And, if the Iranians don’t surrender, the U.S. and the world must bleed the Iranian economy to the point when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei abandons a $100 billion nuclear program that has run for two decades. Netanyahu’s version of a good deal is total capitulation by the Iranians, including full dismantlement of its nuclear facilities and a complete end to Tehran’s destructive behavior in the Middle East. Although this would certainly be the ideal scenario for Israel, the United States, and the entire Middle East, it is unattainable. The Iranians may be willing to provide the world with some nuclear concessions for sanctions relief, but they are not willing to accept an arrangement that Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would categorize as a humiliating retreat.
The Israeli prime minister needs to understand that, at this point, the best solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge is a formula akin to conflict management: ensuring that Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful for a set period of time, and punished if Tehran reneges on its commitments. Hoping for the best scenario is, in fact, no scenario at all.
Netanyahu is a superb orator who views the security of Israel and the defense of the Jewish people with all the seriousness it is due. He is sincere in what he says. And, if anything, Netanyahu has tangentially played a useful role in the talks, because every time he raises the alarm on Iran’s nuclear program, it has pushed the United States, Europe, China, and Russia harder on the intrusive, stringent verification mechanisms that are needed if there is to be any agreement. But diplomacy is all about choices, getting as much as one can without giving away the concessions that are deemed most valuable. Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is confirmation that he has not relinquished the uncompromising ideal.
Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geopolitical consulting firm specializing in foreign policy and national security trends for clients worldwide. He is also a contributor to the Atlantic Council, a leading national security think tank located in Washington, D.C.