Benjamin Netanyahu comes to Washington

Speak to the hand. Gary Cameron/Reuters

Editor’s note: It was one of the most anticipated speeches of the year - and one of the most controversial. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday spoke to a joint session of Congress and made the argument – emphatically and passionately – that the deal the US and its allies are pursuing with Iran is “a bad deal, a very bad deal.”

The American public, however, appears to disagree according to a survey conducted last week and released Tuesday by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation. The survey’s results are in more detail below, just one of the contributions from our panel of scholars on the significance and potential impact of the Israeli Prime Minister’s address to Congress.

The only clear winners are America’s and Israel’s enemies

Simon Reich, Rutgers University

Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly presented with a bust of Winston Churchill prior to his speech to the US Congress. And he certainly did his best to emulate Churchill’s ebullient and bombastic style. The speech was longer on rhetoric than detail. But its effectiveness may be measured by the sharpness and immediacy of the stinging rebuke it drew from the White House.

Netanyahu’s speech focused on three things: the first was the recent and current context, one in which an aggressive Iran has proved more effective over time in developing into a regional power. From Iraq to Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and beyond, it acts or uses surrogates to promote a virulent form of militancy. From this perspective, it seeks to subjugate ISIS - but also Israel.

The message, Netanyahu conveyed, is that “The enemy of your enemy is your enemy” and not your friend.

The second was that the current Iranian regime needs a deal far more than the West, given its “fragility” and the recent decline in the price of oil. The West (and pointedly, the Obama regime), has leverage that it should not waste on a bad deal. A good deal would require changes in Iranian behavior beyond the immediate nuclear issue and the closure of nuclear facilities. The current deal does neither, and is therefore inadequate.

Netanyahu’s third argument was that the time horizon of the current proposal not only kicks the can down the road but its terms will actually enable Iran to produce nuclear weapons. This is the most controversial claim, and one that experts will debate in the days ahead.

What, then, are we to conclude? Well, nobody wins at this point – except perhaps America’s and Israel’s enemies.

Netanyahu’s bellicose grandstanding may have won him points both in a Republican-dominated Congress and at home as he seeks reelection. But if he wins in a few weeks’ time he will have to deal with an American president who even more resolutely opposes him. His combative language was injudicious and undiplomatic. An implied, unspoken threat could have avoided the evident frustration expressed by the President’s staff.

Perhaps an even greater sin? Netanyahu has resolutely divided the American Jewish community in a way unseen in modern times. This can only hinder Israel’s cause.

What of President Obama? Well, he will find it hard to escape a major criticism: that he is trying to broker a historic deal in which he does little more, as Netanyahu suggested, than “kick the can down the road.”

‘As far as I can tell there was nothing new’ - President Obama on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The president is gambling that the ten-year moratorium he proposes will allow the reformist forces in Iran time to strengthen their position and avoid a future war. Netanyahu argued the opposite. Obama needs to unquestionably refute this claim if he is to win the political argument. He’s failed to do that so far.

At the same time the president has simultaneously managed to alienate America’s two closest allies in the Middle East – Israel and Saudi Arabia. The unspoken irony is that he appears to trust Iran more than the leadership of either of these two countries. Alliances are built on trust. It is your adversaries from whom you require verification. The president claims that inspectors will verify Iranian behavior. But it would help if he demonstrated – and didn’t just declare – his empathy with Israeli and Saudi concerns. President Obama’s rational, deliberative language is understandable. But it is not his life or that of his children that is at stake.

As for their part, the Iranian regime must be smiling in the knowledge that they have divided two of their greatest enemies - and that John Kerry will be all the keener to reach a deal before it is subverted by the US Congress.

Netanyahu’s Speech and the American Public

Steven Kull, Program for Public Consultation, University of Maryland

A survey that we conducted among a nationally representative panel of 710 Americans between February 19 and February 25 provides us insight into how the American public is likely to respond to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

The bottom line is that six in ten Americans ultimately come down in favor of making the kind of deal that Netanyahu opposes. The arguments he made, while persuasive, do not move most people away from this conclusion.

Survey conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Anwar Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland and fielded by GfK, Author provided

Netanyahu argued forcefully that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would pose an extreme threat. But this point appears to already be factored into Americans’ thinking.

The question is how best to respond to the threat. The case he made – that more sanctions will lead to a better deal – did prove at least somewhat convincing to most respondents in our survey. But in the end, they still came out in favor of actually making a deal as the best response.

Netanyahu’s insistence that Iran stop uranium enrichment and demonstrate better overall behavior before a deal is agreed was not a perspective that we presented on our survey but it is unlikely that it would have made much impact. Respondents did not have a lot of confidence that more sanctions would even stop Iran from enriching.

Respondents were briefed on the Iran nuclear deal and evaluated twelve different arguments for and against the options of making a deal. The briefing and the arguments were vetted with Congressional staffers from both parties and with outside advocacy groups from both ends of the spectrum.

Survey conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Anwar Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland, and fielded by GfK, Author provided

What was striking was that all of the arguments were found to be at least somewhat convincing by a majority, in many cases two thirds. These included the arguments that Netanyahu made. It is likely that many Americans were nodding in response to Netanyahu’s concerns.

Survey conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Anwar Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland and fielded by GfK, Author provided

But when asked to make their final recommendations, they broke sharply in favor of making a deal rather than ramping up sanctions. 61% of respondents were in favor of making a deal allowing limited enrichment, provided that there are intrusive inspections. This included 61% of Republicans, 66% of Democrats and 54% of independents.

The most important thing: stopping nuclear proliferation

Nancy Gallagher, University of Maryland School of Public Policy

Perhaps the most important thing that is rarely mentioned is that the outcome of negotiations with Iran will affect not only security in the Middle East, but also global efforts to prevent proliferation through cooperation rather than military action.

Reaching agreement on rules about what Iran will do with the dual-use (both civilian and military) nuclear capabilities it has, and on the international oversight necessary to ensure that it honors those commitments would reaffirm an international consensus on the core principles of the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The United States played a leading role in the creation of that accord, as well as the 1995 agreement to extend it indefinitely.

These treaties provide the legal basis for all international efforts to increase transparency and reduce nuclear risks. Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are the only countries that still reject this accord.

Strengthening the near-universal consensus on cooperative nonproliferation will only become more important in the coming years as more countries decide that they, too, want to use nuclear power – to meet their own economic development and energy needs without risking public health through air pollution or causing catastrophic climate change.

This is an edited extract of comments from Nancy Gallagher’s article on the School of Public Policy site.

Negotiations will continue and the clock is ticking

Stuart Krusell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School

Prime Minister Netanyahu joked that never has so much been written about a speech that hadn’t been delivered. Now that he has delivered it, the joke might be that never has so much been said about an agreement that hasn’t been agreed to. But the reality of what is being discussed is no joke.

Questions about the Israeli elections and US-Israel relations must not detract from the serious question of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The drama makes for good political theater, but the bottom line is: will there be a good deal or no deal at all?

Netanyahu has made his position clear – no deal if it allows Iran any nuclear capability. This is not practical or possible. Iran has shown no willingness to fully abandon nuclear technology, even in the face of crippling sanctions.

The question now is what impact Netanyahu’s speech will have on the negotiations and possibly on implementation of any agreement.

In his speech, Netanyahu stated negotiations are resulting in a bad deal. The truth is, there might not even be an agreement. And if there is, without details of what is involved, it is impossible to know if it is a bad one – unless, of course, one believes any deal is bad.

Iran has been isolated and the sanctions have brought them to the table. It is not yet certain whether getting them there will yield positive results. But it would be a tragedy if in the process Israel finds itself increasingly isolated by its refusal to consider diplomatic solutions and anything less than full acceptance of their demands.

It is important to remember that this is not only a debate between the US and Israel. Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia are part of the negotiations. Sanctions and other efforts to isolate Iran will only work if there is reasonable global unity and that could be in jeopardy.

Netanyahu believes that the Obama Administration and the world want to sign an agreement with Iran. He also stated that he believes Iran needs an agreement more than we do. To prevent this from happening, he decided to play his hand with Congress, in hopes they will scuttle it or muddy its implementation.

The stakes on all sides are high, perhaps even existential. Despite Netanyahu’s speech, negotiations will continue and the clock is ticking - hopefully not in a countdown to catastrophic result.

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