War Stories

Netanyahu’s Deadly Gambit

The Israeli prime minister is insincere. The only outcomes that would please him are Iranian regime change or outright war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 2015.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress on Tuesday was a disturbing spectacle: shallow, evasive, short on logic, and long on cynicism.

The Israeli prime minister pretended to criticize the specific deal that the United States and five other nations are currently negotiating with Iran, but it’s clear from his words that he opposes any deal that falls short of Iran’s total disarmament and regime change. He pretended merely to push for a “better deal,” but he actually was agitating for war.

At the start of his speech, he played nice, thanking President Obama for the generous bounty of security assistance, the rescues from embassy sieges, the shipment of Iron Dome missile-defense batteries (which probably saved hundreds of Israeli lives from Hamas rocket attacks), and for his help in other programs so highly classified that they cannot be mentioned.

But this had all the sincerity of Mark Antony coming to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The burying soon commenced.

As an opening dig, he listed the many ways in which Iran is a threat to the region and to Israel: It supports terrorists, seeks to expand its influence, and still shouts slogans of death to America and Zionists. These claims are, of course, incontestable. But what do they have to do with the nuclear deal on the table?

This is a question that Netanyahu not only failed to answer, but thoroughly muddled.

His problem with the deal is twofold: It doesn’t obliterate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and it relies on international inspectors to detect cheating. This, of course, is the “problem” with every arms control agreement that has ever been negotiated, except for treaties of surrender at the end of a war.

He failed to note that the deal, as it’s been outlined, would force Iran to reduce its stockpile of centrifuges, to freeze its enrichment of uranium well below “weapons-grade” levels, and to open its nuclear facilities to extraordinarily intrusive inspections.

But he aimed his biggest guns at the provision in the deal (again, as it’s been reported) that lets it expire in 10 years. At that point, Netanyahu warned, Iran would be free to resume its juggernaut toward a nuclear weapon, this time with economic sanctions long lifted, resulting in the continuation of Iranian aggression and a nuclear arms race between Iran and its regional foes.

This is a legitimate concern, but consider the following: First, a lot can happen in 10 years. (Take a look back at the most recent three or four 10-year periods.) Second, almost every arms-control accord ever negotiated has an expiration date. Third—and this is key—the horrible things that Netanyahu foresees 10 years down the road, if the deal is signed, might happen—by his own logic, would happen—in the next two or three years if the talks fail.

The only difference would be that, if the talks fail now, the sanctions would still be in place. But in fact this seems unlikely. The U.S. government’s sanctions would probably hold, but not those imposed by the European Union and other nations—which have lasted as long as they have only because of the nuclear talks. President Obama and others have persuaded many others that the sanctions have helped pressure the Iranians into negotiations. If the negotiations break down, that argument falls apart—especially if they break down because the U.S. Congress rejects the deal, and doubly so if it rejects the deal because of a speech by the prime minister of Israel.

So what does Netanyahu offer as an alternative to the present deal on the table (which, it should be emphasized, has not been completed and, by all reports, still has many disputes to resolve)? “The alternative to this very bad deal,” he told the assembled American lawmakers, “is a much better deal.”

He defines “a much better deal” as a deal that doesn’t merely freeze and inspect Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but dismantles it—completely. Furthermore, the deal should be written so that, at the end of the 10-year period, the restrictions shouldn’t be lifted unless Iran stops all aggression against its neighbors, stops supporting terrorist groups, and stops its rhetorical threats to annihilate Israel—in short unless Iran changes its behavior or (here’s the real upshot) changes its regime.

This is a nice world that Netanyahu envisions, but it just isn’t going to happen, and he knows it. During the decades of Soviet-American arms control talks, many conservatives similarly argued that the president shouldn’t sign a deal unless the Kremlin stopped supporting Communist insurgents, dropped its Marxist-Leninist views, and joined the international economic system. Thankfully, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan thought it was in U.S. interests to control, then reduce the nuclear arsenals, even in the absence of a change in the political, economic, or ideological spheres.

Netanyahu insisted that “no deal” is better than this deal, and here we come to his most brazen contradiction, the clearest sign that his intentions and arguments are insincere. “If Iran threatens to walk away,” he told Congress, “call their bluff. They need this deal a lot more than you do. By keeping up the pressure on Iran, you have the power to make them need it even more.”

This is nonsense, and he knows it. Early in the speech, he warned of Iran’s growing strength: It was “charging into the void” to export terror throughout the Middle East; it “dominates four Middle Eastern capitals;” it’s “busy gobbling up” nations. “We must stand together,” he urged Congress, “to stop Iran” from subjugating the region, then the world.

But later on, when he sought to assure Congress to demand stiffer terms and to let Iran walk away from the talks if they don’t like it, he changed his tune. Iran can be pressured into accepting a better deal because, he said, it’s “a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse in the price of oil.”

So which is it, Mr. Prime Minister: Iran as a rapacious beacon of Islamic terrorism, comparable in its beastliness to the Nazis or to Haman, the Persian viceroy who sought to wipe out the Jews 2,500 years ago (and yes, he made comparisons to both)—or Iran as a weakening regime, sure to change its entire political structure and foreign policy if only we applied a little more pressure?

Any Israeli leader has good reason to fear Iran, to distrust Iran’s intentions, and to cock a skeptical eyebrow in the direction of any agreement that Iran’s leaders deign to sign. But this is a matter to discuss, to weigh its risks and benefits. And it might be a good idea to wait for the accord to be completed and signed (if there is an accord), so we can all read it before the debate.

It’s worth noting, for now, that Netanyahu has been consistently wrong on this whole issue. He denounced the interim accord, signed a year ago, as a fraud that wildly favored the Iranians and that the Iranians would soon violate anyway; in fact, it’s been remarkably effective at freezing Iran’s nuclear activities, while freeing up a small fraction of its sanctioned funds. For the past 15 years, he’s been warning that Iran could or would go nuclear in the next year—and yet, here he still stands, in a Middle East where the only nation with nuclear weapons is his own.

It’s appalling that so many members of the U.S. Congress cheer Netanyahu’s every utterance as some holy oracle, seemingly unaware that many senior Israeli security officers dispute his assertions about the urgency of an Iranian nuclear threat—unaware even that he’s increasingly unpopular among his own citizens. It’s downright unseemly that these same members of Congress cheer his condemnation of the P5+1 deal as “a very bad deal”—they stand up, applaud madly, and howl toward the cameras and galleries—without giving their own president and his diplomats a chance to complete and defend the deal themselves.