No Nuance for Netanyahu in Speech Blasting Compromise With Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, pauses while speaking during a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 3.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

If there’s one message the administration of Barack Obama has sought to convey as it tries to strike a balance among competing interests overseas, it’s that foreign policy demands nuance and compromise.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Congress on Tuesday to say the opposite: Certain things are beyond nuance, and the Iranian nuclear program is one of them.

In his long-anticipated speech before a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu said nothing he hasn’t said many times. But he used the platform handed to him by the Republican leadership to focus feelings and attention away from complications of policy to what he sees as simple, irrefutable truths.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve come here today to tell you we don’t have to bet the security of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better,” he said. “We don’t have to gamble with our future and with our children’s future.”

Netanyahu’s message was aimed at two audiences -- Israelis, who may re-elect him or remove him from power when they vote on March 17, and the U.S. Congress, which he hopes will pressure the Obama administration to abandon the nuclear deal it’s negotiating with Tehran.

Both Obama and Netanyahu have made it clear that they want to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. (Iran, for its part, says it has never sought one and enriches uranium for peaceful and medical purposes.)

Lifting Sanctions

Obama argues this can be accomplished through a deal of at least 10 years that slowly lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbing its nuclear program, although not destroying it. During that time, he says, Iran can be brought back into the family of nations and away from any aggressive intentions.

Netanyahu says the government in Iran can’t be reformed, that it will wait out the deal and then be on the verge of building a bomb with little restraint. A decade may seem like a long time in politics, he said, but not in the life of a nation. Sanctions must be increased and the deal abandoned, or the world will face a regional and global disaster.

What Netanyahu avoided was the internal contradiction of his argument: the notion that more economic sanctions can force a government that can’t be reformed to reform or be overthrown. U.S. and European officials argue that more external pressure will strengthen the regime by allowing it to blame the nation’s economic troubles on hostile outsiders.

If more pressure doesn’t lead to reform or revolution, the alternative may be war, an outcome Netanyahu dismissed.

Balancing Policy

For the Obama administration, there are many factors at play in the talks: Europe’s impatience with long-term sanctions, an Iranian leadership it judges to be more pragmatic and the need to balance policy toward Iran with policy toward the rest of the Middle East as well as Russia, Ukraine and China. While Iran is important, it isn’t the only issue.

For Netanyahu, Iran stands alone in its significance and threat.

It’s too early to judge whether Netanyahu’s message will gain traction. Many in the U.S. and abroad are furious that he used the platform of Congress to criticize the U.S. president. He embarrassed and alienated many Democrats who urged him to make his point quietly rather than publicly. Within hours of the speech Obama said “there was nothing new” in the remarks and that the prime minister had offered no viable alternatives.

Still, Netanyahu has a history of speaking directly to the American public, and his message may fall on fertile ground. A Gallup poll released Monday showed his popularity in the U.S. near an all-time high at 45 percent, up 10 percentage points from 2012.

Boehner Invitation

Obama lost control of Congress in November. Part of what angers at least some U.S. citizens is what they perceive to be his professorial and analytical cool. Many Republicans reject the Iran deal that he and Secretary of State John Kerry are negotiating precisely because they believe it shows the leaders to be naive about the harsh forces at work in the Middle East.

Netanyahu represents that perspective, which is why House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, invited him to Congress.

Netanyahu didn’t talk in subtleties. He told the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins on Wednesday, when a Persian king tried to annihilate the Jews who lived in his kingdom. He brought along Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and writer, and used him to invoke the phrase “Never Again” about the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.

For Netanyahu, policy toward Iran must be forged with the kind of resolve directed at the Nazis by Churchill and others. The Iran deal on the table, he says, amounts to appeasement.

Many Obama administration officials and defenders were offended, saying that Netanyahu acted as if only he understands the danger of a nuclear Iran.

“I resented the condescending tone,” said John Yarmuth, a Democratic Congressman from Kentucky.

Netanyahu took a political gamble when he decided to make this speech. Many, including allies, urged him to cancel it. If the Israeli electorate rejects him in two weeks, analysts will argue that voters were unhappy with his treatment of the U.S. administration. If he regains power and the current Iran deal falls apart, many will say it was, for him, a day of victory.

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