In 2001, Benjamin Netanyahu, then a former prime minister of Israel, arrived in a West Bank settlement to speak with a group of Israelis whose family members had been killed in Palestinian attacks. He told them not to worry about condemnation of Israel, especially if the criticism came from the U.S.
“I know what America is. America is something that can easily be moved,” he said in remarks caught on video and published by an Israeli news outlet.
Now Israel’s prime minister again, Netanyahu is about to put that belief to the test. On March 3, he will address a special joint meeting of Congress. His aim is clear: to move the U.S. away from inking a deal with Iran that would limit that country’s ability to make a nuclear weapon in return for the lifting of U.S. sanctions.
Netanyahu is playing with fire. To counter his bellicosity, President Barack Obama should make it clear to the world what Netanyahu is doing: pushing for a confrontation with Iran. A breakdown in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) would likely push Iran toward ramping up its nuclear program, which would alarm Israel and the U.S. and potentially spark a larger conflagration in an already roiling Middle East.
A speech by itself cannot cause a diplomatic snafu. But Netanyahu is appealing to public opinion and hoping that Congress’ more hawkish members will be convinced to pass legislation imposing more sanctions on Iran, a move that could kill diplomatic efforts.
Netanyahu’s planned speech has sparked controversy. The White House says Obama won’t meet with Netanyahu because of U.S. protocol not to meet with leaders running for election. (Israeli elections take place in mid-March.) Other Democrats say the real reason for Obama’s coldness is that Netanyahu coordinated the speech with Republicans without informing the president.
Whether you accept these reasons or not, they do not explain what is really at stake in the controversy. A U.S.-Iran deal will have enormously positive consequences for both countries and the Middle East as a whole by removing the threat of war and tamping down a rivalry that has fueled instability throughout the region. A successful pact could foster a U.S.-Iran partnership to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an extremist group violently opposed to both nations. The deal may also lead to fruitful negotiations to solve the Syrian civil war. The U.S. has shut Iran, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s key backer, out of talks between the opposition and the Syrian regime. Detente between the U.S. and Iran would make it easier for both countries to work together to solve the Syrian calamity and help stabilize the region.
Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Islamic republic has clashed repeatedly with the U.S. The fight over Iran’s nuclear energy program is only the latest drama. Started with the help of the U.S. in the 1950s, Iran’s program has advanced tremendously in recent years. The U.S. and its allies suspect that Iran has been trying to build a nuclear weapon, pointing to the 2009 discovery of a discovery of secret nuclear plants used to enrich uranium, crucial material for a weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency has raised questions about Iranian activities that the organizations says are “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” though credible questions about the veracity of these reports have been raised by journalists and analysts.
Iran has denied it is building a nuclear bomb, citing a fatwa issued by its Supreme Leader against nuclear weapons. A 2012 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate states that Iran is not trying to make a bomb, and a recently leaked spy cable uncovered by Al Jazeera reveals that Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has concluded the same. In the background looms Israel’s nuclear weapons program, which Iran sees as a threat.
The simmering conflict has cooled down since Iran and the P5+1 struck an interim deal in 2013 that lifted some sanctions and stopped some nuclear activity. But now the negotiations are closing in on a permanent deal. If the U.S. and Iran are successful, a historic agreement will be reached that could pave the way toward a full detente between the two nations.
Standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” is Netanyahu. He believes he has the right to do so because, he says, the nuclear deal “will allow Iran to threaten Israel’s existence.” In the background is the fear that the deal will mark a substantial rapprochement that will lessen the leverage Israel has in representing U.S. interests in the region.
In reality, any viable nuclear deal will impose stringent limits on Iran’s program and subject it to intrusive international inspections, making it very hard to get away with building a bomb. And a lasting nuclear deal would be beneficial to the U.S., Iran and even Israel in the long term. It is in Netanyahu’s interest to halt U.S.-Iranian reconciliation, since it would strip the prime minister of a dispute that he exploits to distract attention from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. But a U.S.-Iran pact would be beneficial to Israel because it would remove the threat of another Israeli or U.S. war in the region and potentially tamp down the raging Syrian conflict on Israel’s doorstep
Obama should make these realities clear to the American people. He should also be blunt and say Netanyahu wants to kill diplomacy and pave a path toward war. The president is facing a foreign leader trying to pre-empt his Iran negotiations on U.S. soil. The best response is to pre-empt Netanyahu’s remarks with frankness.