Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Bibi goes to Washington

Bibi goes to Washington

For most of my professional life I have been addicted to Middle Eastern politics. In recent years, however, I have started to kick the habit, so I had not planned to get up at 3am Sydney time to watch Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver his much anticipated and controversial address to the US Congress.

And yet it seems I retain some of the involuntary reflexes of a long-time political junkie. I woke abruptly at 3am and carried myself off to the television. I'm glad I did. Because while 'Bibi' has built his political career on his words rather than his actions (just like President Obama, ironically), you only get the full nuance when you watch him live.

The world was first introduced to Bibi during the 1991 Gulf War when, as Israel's deputy foreign minister, he became a familiar face on CNN, including most famously during one interview, wearing a gas mask. Bibi repeatedly warned of the dangers Israel faced from Iraq's Scud missiles, a number of which did strike Israel during that war.

It was a tense moment in US-Israel relations. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wanted to take military action against Iraq's Scud missile. The Bush Administration, however, wanted desperately to keep Israel out of the war to ensure that the Arab coalition it had carefully assembled against Saddam did not fall apart.

The Administration succeeded, but the Israeli Government's pressure meant that the US military placed a high priority on hunting Scuds in Iraq's western desert. Bibi was very much the public face of that pressure, using the skills he would become famous for: his deep understanding of the media and public relations; his strong command of the English language and his great facility for dramatic gestures.

Bibi's TV appearances also propelled him politically in Israel, which caused great tension between him and his nominal boss, then Israel Foreign Minister David Levy, who did not speak English and had the charisma of a prickly pear.

Almost 25 years later, many of those same elements were at play in another moment of tension in US-Israel relations, this time over Iran. [fold]

Bibi believes the Obama Administration is about to sign a deal with Iran over its nuclear program that will imperil Israel. His address to Congress at the invitation of House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, and in the face of opposition from the Obama Administration, was a typically dramatic gesture. Yet, as numerous Israeli critics pointed out, it also risked undermining bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship by alienating Democrats, some 50 of whom reportedly refused to attend the speech. And many saw the speech as a stunt aimed at shoring up political support for Bibi in Israel's elections in two weeks' time.

Against so rich a background the speech turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax.

It was all the things we have come to expect from a Bibi speech: dramatic, eloquent, at times compelling, at others condescending, and not a little bit cynical. And there were strong points to Bibi's argument. Two stand out in particular.

The first reflects deep Israeli (and indeed Arab) fears about an agreement. That is, not only won't it stop an Iranian nuclear bomb, but it will entrench Iran's regional ascendancy by ending its economic and political isolation. Indeed the fear among Iran's adversaries is that the Obama Administration is contemplating allying with Iran in the Middle East on issues of common interest.

A significant part of Bibi's speech was devoted to the theme of 'be careful who you get in bed with'. He singled out America and Iran's shared interest in the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 'Don't be fooled', he argued. Iran and Islamic State are no different; they were simply competing for the crown of militant Islam. I don't believe the Obama Administration is blind to the realities of the Iranian regime and its regional ambitions. Nevertheless, Bibi's evocative reminders about the nature of the regime, and the amount of American blood on its hands, will be difficult for the Administration to rebut publicly.

Bibi's second strong point was to point to a flaw in the nature of the agreement, a flaw which worries even some supporters of a nuclear deal with Iran: its sunset clause. Because no deal would ever be able to totally eliminate Iran's nuclear program, the deal instead seeks to place limits on Iran's ability to produce fissile material. Any deal would, however, be time-limited. According to media reports, the US was seeking a 20-year lifespan for the deal, the Iranians want 10, with a compromise most likely to emerge at 15.

Bibi dwelt effectively on the real fear that Iran will just wait out the term of any agreement, pocketing the ending of sanctions along the way, and then build nuclear weapons once it is freer to do so. The truth is that even after the end of any deal, Iran will remain subject to NPT restrictions. But this is always going to seem weaker and much less reassuring to those that fear Iran is wriggling its way out of sanctions by exploiting the short-term horizons of Western political leaders.

The strength of both these points was, however, undermined by the speech's greatest weakness: Bibi's inability to offer an alternative. He was detailed in his exposition of the Iranian regime's perfidy over the years and the flaws of any diplomatic agreement with Tehran. But the detail disappeared when it came to explaining the alternative.

America, he argued, should simply walk away from any deal that didn't eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure. This precondition cuts little ice with anyone except the most partisan of critics of the deal. There is no way the Iranians would agree to negotiate on that basis. As President Obama correctly noted in an interview with Reuters this week, 'there's no expert on Iran or nuclear proliferation around the world that seriously thinks that Iran is going to respond to additional sanctions by eliminating its nuclear program.' Even military action would not achieve that outcome, other than temporarily. Netanyahu also said America should walk away from any deal which fails to end Iran's aggressive regional behaviour. That's an important issue, but impossible to tie into an already complex nuclear negotiation.

In effect, therefore, Bibi argued that America should just walk away.

But then what? He didn't argue the case for imposing more sanctions on Iran, perhaps because he understands that sanctions have not prevented Iran from developing its nuclear program to date. And while increased sanctions over the last year have helped bring Iran to the negotiating table they are unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term, given their reliance on Russian and Chinese cooperation.

Nor did he say anything about military action, perhaps in the knowledge that even among many Republican allies there is little appetite for dragging America into another costly war in the Middle East.

Indeed, under both of these scenarios (more sanctions or military action), the sunset that so worries Bibi and others in any diplomatic deal gets a whole lot closer than 10 or 15 years. Even under intense sanctions, Iran will still develop its nuclear program and probably even accelerate it, as it has done in the past. And as even Israeli military experts have conceded, military action might slow Iran's program by only 2 or 3 years.

I do not think Bibi's speech will scuttle the negotiations with Iran (although that may still happen of its own accord), nor will it irreparably damage US-Israel relations. Where Bibi has done real damage is to the willingness of the Obama Administration to listen to Israeli concerns about an agreement.

These are real and justified concerns, which need to be built into any agreement if it is to bring much needed stability to the region. But because Bibi has made it personal and political, he has made it easier for the Administration to dismiss Israeli complaints about a deal on the grounds that Bibi simply opposes any realistic deal, no matter how good. Moreover, poking your finger in the eye of an American president in the less politically-encumbered final years of his presidency does not seem very smart.

To put it another way, Bibi's speech won't scuttle the deal because Bibi has made it all about Bibi. But for the same reason, the speech won't do deep damage to Israel's alliance with America. One day Bibi will be gone; the US-Israeli relationship will remain.

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