Word on the Street: A speech without a strategy

March 3, 2015

As expected, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a rousing speech to Congress, rich in historic imagery and replete with literary references.  Yet a speech filled with powerful words is no substitute for a strategy for actually preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon – and this was a speech without a strategy.

As National Security Adviser Susan Rice told AIPAC yesterday, “Precisely because this is such a serious issue, we must weigh the different options before us and choose the best one.  Sound bites won’t stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

The Obama administration is making a strong and credible case that the deal it is pursuing would block Iran’s pathway to developing the fissile material necessary for a bomb and extend the time for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a bomb from today’s estimated three months to at least a year.

J Street stands ready to defend such a deal if it emerges – and we expect a long and tough fight. To paraphrase Netanyahu’s personal hero, Winston Churchill, today’s speech was not the end of his conflict with President Barack Obama. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

Netanyahu left no one in any doubt that if re-elected later this month, he would fight to block and sabotage the nuclear deal that the United States is negotiating along with five other powers. The Republicans will back him all of the way. The same party which has voted to repeal Obamacare 57 times will no doubt use every legislative tool at their disposal to derail the agreement – if there is one.  That sets up a long battle with many skirmishes – and a great question at stake – who is going to determine US policy toward Iran? Will it be the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Israel?

The irony is, this would be an agreement that would leave Israel much safer than it is today. Without a deal, quoting Rice again, here’s what’s likely to happen: “Iran will install and operate advanced centrifuges.  Iran will seek to fuel its [plutonium] reactor in Arak.  Iran will rebuild its uranium stockpile.  And, we’ll lose the unprecedented inspections and transparency we have today.”

Netanyahu’s alternative to this would be ratcheting up international sanctions against Iran and keeping them in place until Iran ceases regional aggression, stops sponsoring terrorism and stops threatening to annihilate Israel. But years of extraordinarily tough sanctions did not persuade the Iranians to abandon their nuclear program or prevent them moving it forward. Neither did cyber warfare or a series of assassinations of Iranian scientists. Why would they do so now?

And if the United States was seen as walking away from a possible agreement, the international sanctions regime would likely crumble, not strengthen. Iranian hardliners who oppose an agreement would be back in the driver’s seat in Tehran while those who would want to see Iran rejoin the international community would be discredited and sidelined.

Netanyahu’s speech cannot be evaluated without also measuring the damage he has done to the US-Israel relationship — which has been politicized as never before.

As Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va) said in a statement before the speech, “The process employed by Mr. Netanyahu and his Ambassador, Mr. Dermer, to secure this privilege [to address a joint session] is deeply offensive and hurtful. It has driven a partisan wedge where none has ever existed before, it has provided a gratuitous insult to our head of state, and bypassed any reasonable norm of diplomatic protocol.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was “near tears” during the address and that she was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States.”

Netanyahu may think it was worth it. He is in a tough election battle and his aides were widely quoted in the Israeli media over the weekend as saying the speech might bring his Likud Party an extra two seats in the March 17 election. That might make a big difference for Netanyahu – but the Israeli people should not be made to pay such a heavy price for his electoral success.

Netanyahu has had his say and next the Israeli people will have theirs’. Our turn will come at our National Conference, March 21-24. Please join us in Washington so that our voice for sanity and reason, for justice and democracy, and above all for peace and universal human and Jewish values, is heard.