At face value, this speech makes no sense. But there may be a deeper logic to the Israeli prime minister’s determination to speak to Congress.
Why is Benjamin Netanyahu going ahead with his speech to Congress in a few hours’ time, despite complaints from all quarters about the damage it is causing? It’s a trickier question than it seems.
Was it simple tin ear on his side, and Ambassador Ron Dermer’s? Based on the idea, as Netanyahu has preposterously claimed, that he “didn’t intend” any affront to the sitting U.S. president and was surprised by all the ruckus? Were they that ill-informed, naive, trapped in a bubble, or plain dumb?
I find that hard to believe, from a leader who prides himself on his U.S. connections and an ambassador born and raised in the U.S. and schooled by Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz. If Barack Obama addressed the Knesset and said he had a “moral obligation” to criticize Netanyahu’s policies, would he then say he “didn’t intend” any offense? Please.
Was it crass election-year politicking on Netanyahu’s part, based on the need to get through this month’s election in Israel and the faith that eventually things would sort themselves back out with the United States? All politicians know that if they don’t hold office their platforms don’t matter, and most convince themselves that what is good for them is good for their country. So maybe he rationalized that getting through this election was worth whatever bruised feelings it might cause.
On this I defer to the reporting of The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, here, here, and here about the tensions between Netanyahu’s electoral incentives and long-term U.S.-Israeli relations. From my point of view, this would be the most benign explanation. Countries act in their own self-interest, and so do politicians.
Was it because Netanyahu has been such a prescient, confirmed-by-reality judge of real-world threats that he feels moral passion about making sure his views are heard?
Hardly. I can’t believe that he’s fooled even himself into thinking that his egging-on of war with Iraq looks good in retrospect. And for nearly two decades Netanyahu has been arguing that Iran was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. When you’re proven right, you trumpet that fact—and when you’re proven wrong, you usually have the sense to change the topic. Usually.
Was it because Netanyahu has a better plan that he wants Congress or the United States to adopt in dealing with Iran? No. His alternative plan for Iran is like the Republican critics’ alternative to the Obama healthcare or immigration policies. That is: It’s not a plan, it’s dislike of what Obama is doing. And if the current negotiations break down, Iran could move more quickly toward nuclear capacity than it is doing now—barring the fantasy of a preemptive military strike by Israel or the U.S. As Michael Tomasky put it in the Daily Beast:
Netanyahu is creating a much bigger problem here. Ultimately, he wants war with Iran. And American neoconservatives want it, too. … Think about it. What is the alternative to negotiating with Iran? Well, there is only one: not negotiating with Iran. And what are the possible courses of action under that option? At the end of the day, there are two. Number one, let Iran do what it wants. Number two, ultimately, be willing to start a war to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Was it because Netanyahu actually believes what he is about to tell Congress: that his country faces an “existential threat” if Iran develops a nuclear weapon? These are fighting words on my part, but: I don’t really believe this can be so.
Let me explain. No person, nation, or community can define what some other person (etc) “should” consider threatening. And after I argued last month that a nuclear-armed Iran would be undesirable for the world but not an “existential” threat to an Israel with its own large nuclear-weapons arsenal, I received a flood of mail summed up by one message from a man in Connecticut: “If you were a Jew, you would understand.”
There is no answer to an identity-based argument; no one can completely stand in someone else’s shoes; and the Holocaust is obviously the memory that trumps all others in discussing Israel’s security. So if the voters of Israel want to define Iran’s ambitions not as a problem but as an “existential threat,” that’s up to them.
But from the U.S. perspective I can say that the “existential” concept rests on two utterly unsupportable premises. One is that Iran is fundamentally like Nazi Germany, and the world situation of 2015 is fundamentally like that of 1938. Emotionally you can say “never forget!” Rationally these situations have nothing in common—apart from the anti-Semitic rhetoric. (To begin with: Nazi Germany had a world-beating military and unarmed Jewish minorities within its immediate control. Iran is far away and militarily no match for Israel.) The other premise is that Iran’s leaders are literally suicidal. That is, they care more about destroying Israel than they care about their country’s survival. Remember, Israel has bombs of its own with which to retaliate, so that any attack on Israel would ensure countless more Iranian deaths. As another reader, who also identified himself as Jewish, wrote:
Questions for Prime Minister Netanyahu (and his supporters)
Question 1: How does Iran survive the consequences of a nuclear attack of any scale on Israel?
Question 2: There is no question 2.
That Iran’s current leaders are zealots is easy to demonstrate. That they are suicidal? For that premise there is literally zero evidence, as Peter Beinart recently wrote and as Israel’s own security-services report.
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Maybe I am giving Netanyahu too much credit. Maybe he genuinely believes everything listed above—that he’s been right all along, that we need to hear his message, that Obama and his administration will take no offense, and that this is a life-or-death existential issue because of a suicidal Iranian leadership.
Maybe. But I think he is smarter than any of that. And thus the explanation that rings truest to me is one offered in The National Interest by Paul Pillar, a veteran of the CIA. It’s relevant to note that Pillar was as presciently right about Iraq, concerning both the hyped nature of the threat and the disastrous consequences of the invasion, as Netanyahu was spectacularly wrong.
Pillar’s assessment is that the ramped-up “existential” rhetoric is a screen for the real issue, which is a flat contradiction between long-term U.S. and Israeli national interests as regards Iran. It is in American interests (as I have argued) to find some way to end Iran’s excluded status and re-integrate it with the world, as happened with China in the 1970s. And it is in Israel’s interests, at least as defined by Netanyahu for regional-power reasons, that this not occur. As Pillar writes:
The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all. Netanyahu’s defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government’s objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.
That is, as long as Netanyahu keeps the attention on nukes and “existential” threats, he’s talking about an area where the U.S. and Israel might differ on tactics but agree on ultimate goals. Inflammatory as that topic is, it’s safer than talking about re-integrating Iran as a legitimate power, where U.S. and Israeli interests may ultimately differ. As George Friedman wrote in a Stratfor analysis just now:
This is the heart of Israel’s problem. … Israel does not want to be considered by the United States as one power among many. It is focused on the issue of a nuclear Iran, but it knows that there is no certainty that Iran’s nuclear facilities can be destroyed or that sanctions will cause the Iranians to abandon the nuclear program. What Israel fears is an entente between the United States and Iran and a system of relations in which U.S. support will not be automatic.
From this perspective, Netanyahu’s bull-headedness makes sense, even beyond its short-term electoral value back home. He can be willing to endure complaints about breach of protocol and partisan alignment, if in so doing he can prevent the deeper divergence in national interests from becoming apparent. And if this episode has any value on the American side, it may be to promote freer discussion of the many areas where U.S. interests align with Israel’s, and those where they diverge. We’ll see if that starts with the planned response by a number of Democratic representatives just after the speech.
James Fallows, The Atlantic