I doubt there’s anyone reading this who didn’t watch (or at least read the transcript of) Bibi Netanyahu’s speech themselves yesterday, and everyone has their own well-informed opinions by now so I don’t feel the need to comment too extensively. I did want to flag just a few things though that I found interesting or significant.
1. Coming into the speech, the conventional wisdom on the right was that Netanyahu was going to inform Congress and the world of all the worrisome details in the emerging Iran nuclear deal that the administration has been withholding, and the conventional wisdom on the left was that Netanyahu was going to bash the administration and argue that nothing short of military action will halt Iran’s inevitable march to a bomb. Netanyahu actually did neither of those things, and I found his speech to be relatively tame. As I expected (which you know if you were following me on Twitter yesterday morning), he was conciliatory toward Obama and the Democrats and clearly realized that there was no further benefit to stoking the fire, and he didn’t say anything new in his speech that he hasn’t said before. I found the first half that catalogued Iran’s various sins somewhat unnecessary, as nobody to be taken seriously is arguing that Iran is a positive actor or a force for good in the world, but I also happen to agree with Bibi’s characterization of Iran as a revisionist state engaged in all sorts of unsavory and troublesome behavior around the world, so perhaps there are some who needed the reminder. I do not think that he hit a home run as nothing he said will convince anyone on the fence to change their views, but I also do not think that he struck out since predictions of a confrontational, bombastic, offensive Netanyahu were wrong.
2. I wrote yesterday that I was listening for a viable alternative to the administration’s current approach, and Netanyahu did not offer that exactly. His prescription was to negotiate a better deal, but the details of how one goes about doing that were non-existent. Is it replacing John Kerry and Wendy Sherman with negotiators more inclined to yell and throw a chair or two? Is it passing a sanctions bill now, before negotiations have concluded, to put more pressure on the Iranian side? Is it to pull out of negotiations unless Iran drops any demands that cross certain red lines, like a sunset clause (which if I were negotiating things on the U.S. side would be a deal breaker for me)? Natan Sachs makes a great point in Ha’aretz, which is that trying to torpedo this deal before things have run their course makes it much likelier that the administration will rush to sign an agreement even if it isn’t an ideal one, and that is obviously a very suboptimal outcome. I wish Netanyahu had been specific about how he thinks a better deal can be achieved, since it’s very easy to tear something down but far harder to do so constructively.
3. While I don’t think the speech will move the needle at all in terms of whether individual congressmen are in favor or opposed to talks, more sanctions, etc. I think it’s likely to have motivated more members to approve the Menendez-Corker bill in the works that will require congressional approval of any agreement. This is a good development, not a bad one. Even leaving aside that the executive branch has steadily gobbled up more and more power for decades and destroyed nearly any balance between the branches – a development sorely in need of a corrective – tacking on explicit legislative approval creates the two-level game that is required to get the better deal that Netanyahu believes is out there. If Obama or Kerry can turn to the Iranians and make the case that there are certain elements that simply will not pass Congress and that including those elements will scuttle any negotiated deal, it gives them more leverage in the negotiations since it convincingly self-binds them within a demarcated framework of what is and is not acceptable. It lets the U.S. negotiating team play good cop to Congress’s bad cop, and it can only create a better outcome for the U.S. side (assuming that Iran is serious about negotiating).
4. Far and away the most significant element to the speech is not anything that Netanyahu said, but what he left out, and I am baffled as to why this hasn’t been picked up on more widely. For the first time in awhile, Netanyahu did not insist on his oft-repeated demand that Iran be left with zero enrichment capability, and I assume that this was intentional. If Netanyahu is resigned to a deal happening and wants to make sure that it is one that Israel can live with, dropping the zero enrichment demand is the biggest and most important concession he can make since it creates a space that allows U.S. expectations and Israeli expectations to overlap, not to mention the fact that zero enrichment was a fantasy that was simply never going to happen. So long as Netanyahu was demanding no enrichment at any level, there was not going to be an outcome that he could live with. The fact that he did not repeat it suggests to me that he is taking a more realistic and more reasonable view of things, particularly since low level enrichment was always a red herring – the only number that matters is 20% and higher for breakout purposes – and for the first time, he is actually helping a deal along. I give him lots of credit for this, and I don’t particularly care whether he did it because he realized that demanding zero enrichment made no sense from a technical perspective or whether he did it because he realized that it was just not a realistic demand and hence decided to be pragmatic about things. Either way, people should take this for the positive development that it is, and hope that the aftermath of this speech is that it has created the necessary space for a better deal by enlarging the part of the Venn diagram where the U.S. and Israel overlap.
Two quick reactions. First, I was struck by how many people called or sent emails saying they had no clue about Iran’s involvement in acts of terror across the region and world. People who are not experts just do not put all the events together. Even some of the journalists who commented on the dark or dystopian view of Iran held by BB seem to suggest that Iran not a country pursuing policies that could undermine US interests or even the interests of other countries. Second, I thought BB’s comments about what might be demanded of Iran before a sunset clause terminated–namely to enter the global community, it must agree to live by its Westphalian principles–offered another flexible option for negotiations.
Amazing that people don’t know about Iran’s general behavior. I guess in the space in which I operate, it’s just taken as a given.
I am not as optimistic as you about the three conditions he laid out re: the termination of a sunset clause since none of them are verifiable or measurable in an objective way. I’d like to see something along the lines of the agreement lasting in perpetuity until Iran dismantles certain facilities completely.
Reblogged this on Mark Geoffrey Kirshner.
This article may be interesting for you, it cites some Israeli news about Netanyahu, showcasing some of his absurd lies in the last years. There is also some interesting news about Iran in that article:
My other link is about why NoDeal is the by far worst option:
thanks for the enlightening blog
My biggest beef with Bibi’s speech is that it was more a “galvanize the base” speech (i.e. his GOP buddies) rather than working for change. I think he is a difficult man–most Israelis would admit that–but his track record with other world leaders indicates that Obama is not the only leader who despises him.
In Bibi’s speech before Congress, he offered nothing new, creative, or truly constructive. He has turned into the new Arafat–do anything and everything he can to avoid making a deal; and when he looks like a deal may be in the offing, do something with his other hand (i.e. his ministers) to undermine it. Sort of the Arafat olive branch in one hand and gun in the other. This speech was similar to that–say no, no, and no; paint Iran in the worst possible light (that part I agree with, by the way); offer no concrete proposal to become part of the world nations.
Bibi’s view of middle east politics seems to have no room for true compromise. He has little to no reason to trust the Palestinians or other Arab nations (who similarly despise him), but he has done little to nothing to earn trust. It was wrong for him to end around the US administration in pure politics terms, even if invited; it was wrong for him to politicize the US-Israel relationship. I see nothing positive coming from this speech and more bitterness between Obama and Israeli leadership will not make Israel a safer place.
Isn’t a significant aspect to this US-Israeli disagreement the administration trying to encourage and empower Rouhani at the expense of Khamenei? It seems to me the significant split in Iranian society is still challenging the Islamists total control. The social disruption after Ahmadinejad’s second election was significant and demonstrated popular discontent with the ridiculous and obsolete extent of Islamist political control domestically. If we just cut Rouhani and secular Iranian society off, Khamenei would be the big winner.
There isn’t really an aspect of trying to empower Rouhani to resist Khamenei, since the Supreme Leader has actually shown a high level of support for the negotiations since they began. Instead, Obama is trying to pave a road that both and he Khamenei can safely walk down on the way to deal. It seems like Rouhani is more of a public frontman for the attempt to get a deal – he gets the flack, and Khamenei works in the shadows.
To the Ottomans and Zionists crowd and anyone interested: I thought I’d share my own blog here, a new one on delving past headline-level on the top Middle East stories today. The last two posts deal with “The Speech” and next steps for the U.S. and Israel. Thanks!
Forgot the web address: http://www.mideastmusings.com