We may never know what really went down in the warped political zone inhabited by President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Weeks into the controversy surrounding the latter’s as-yet-uncanceled March 3 speech before Congress, the only thing really clear is that politicians acting in their electoral interests will spin our world like a compromised centrifuge. He said-he said-he said.
As with so much else lately, what you believe will be a function of whom you want to believe. In a rapidly moving scandal, every argument and account feels attenuated and manipulative.
What happens, however, when you actually bracket out the prosaic and petty quarrels of politics? Does the picture clear up, perhaps, if we allow ourselves to imagine that all three leaders are actually behaving according to their understanding of their nation’s best interests? Not just a thought experiment, either: I genuinely believe that in the case of the Iranian nuclear conundrum, all three are simultaneously advancing both narrow-political and broader-national interests as they see them, and we are making a crucial error when we assume the contrary.
First, the president. We shouldn’t understate the importance that this administration has placed on reaching a deal with Iran as part of a broader regional concept. The threat of an Iranian bomb, the reasoning goes, is enormous, and the opportunity has presented itself to simultaneously (a) halt the Iranian program, (b) temper their anti-Western venom and (c) offer a path to regional stability by empowering a moderately disposed Iranian government. If diplomacy can defuse the most destabilizing question in the Middle East, why not do everything we can?
Since taking office, the administration has been arguably more invested in the success of this foreign policy effort than in any other. When President Obama held out the promise that Iran could be a “successful regional power” and his confidant, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, called the deal “probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy,” that’s what they meant. So anything that could possibly get in the way — including both the Kirk-Menendez bill that would conditionally reapply sanctions to Iran if no deal were reached by the accepted June deadline, and Netanyahu’s insistence on addressing Congress about the Iranian menace — will be seen as deeply problematic.
Second, the House speaker. It is not unreasonable for congressional leaders to read the last American election as a referendum on the country’s direction, including in its foreign policy. Constitutionally, Congress is not just about immigration and taxation; there are reasons that the Senate ratifies treaties and that the House has a Foreign Affairs committee — not to mention responsibility for foreign aid, declarations of war and the defense budget. Whereas it is obvious that Congress ought to update the president when inviting foreign leaders to speak, there is no call for subordinating itself to his preferences.
In the view of many in Congress, Iran poses a serious threat not just to Israel as an ally, but also to American interests around the world. They still shout “Death to America” in Tehran, you know. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer was right when he put it this way in The Atlantic: “In the last couple of weeks, people have heard from Prime Minister Cameron [of Great Britain] and other European leaders about the Iran issue. One would hope that people would feel that the opinion of the prime minister of Israel, a staunch ally of the United States threatened by Iran with annihilation, would also be worth hearing.”
And to judge from two recent congressional votes, there is nothing partisan about this sentiment. On January 29, the Senate Banking Committee overwhelmingly voted to approve the Kirk-Menendez bill. The vote was 18–4, and the majority included three Democrats who had previously neither sponsored nor voted for increased pressure on Iran. The possibility that this bill will eventually pass with a veto-proof majority has gone up significantly.
The following day, 75 Senators signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry pledging to hold up further aid to the Palestinians pending the State Department’s review of whether such funding would violate America’s law in the wake of the Palestine Authority’s ascension to the International Criminal Court treaty and the court’s decision to open an inquiry into last summer’s Gaza war.
Support for Israel and concern about Iran are not partisan affairs on Capitol Hill. We can easily understand the difficulty many Democrats may have in supporting Netanyahu’s speech when it has become such a public relations mess. But that doesn’t mean they won’t applaud his words.
Finally, the prime minister. Of course it is election time in Israel — but if this can be used to discount Netanyahu’s sincerity, it can just as easily be held against his domestic critics, who feel outmaneuvered. If we leave aside the politics, however, we are left with this: There is no subject about which Netanyahu has been more consistent in the past two decades than the Iranian nuclear threat. None. You do not have to see him as a man of great principle to understand that in this specific area he is nothing if not principled.
Speaking before Congress the first time, in July 1996, when all of us were focused on the collapsing Oslo Accords and the renewed violence between Israel and the Palestinians, he made a point of saying this about the governments in the region: “The most dangerous of these regimes is Iran, that has wed a cruel despotism to a fanatic militancy. If this regime… were to acquire nuclear weapons, this could presage catastrophic consequences, not only for my country, and not only for the Middle East, but for all mankind.”
This was way before Iran had built 19,000 centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium; before it had built a heavy-water facility at Arak to create a second, plutonium-based track to a bomb; before it had built advanced ballistic missiles for their delivery, or helped the Syrians to make a nuclear facility of their own. And before the administration stopped using the word “dismantle” in describing what it hoped to achieve in a deal.
Now, given all this, and given that what is decided in this negotiation affects not just Americans but also the whole world, does it still make sense that Netanyahu should not speak before Congress as a deal starts to come together? Even at the risk of upsetting some protocol sticklers and those who believe in pristine relations at all costs, should the prime minister really not be allowed to make his case on the grandest possible stage? Unless you are absolutely certain that both the Israeli and congressional narratives are wrong and the White House’s is right, it seems that in the interest of letting all sides be heard, Netanyahu’s speech should go forward.
Let’s put aside politics and hear him out. We just might learn something.
David Hazony is the editor of The Tower and is a contributing editor to the Forward.