Here is the one big takeaway from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress:
"I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.
"We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.
"This is why – this is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand."
Shorter Bibi: Don’t bother trying to make peace with Iran – because we’ll start a war and drag you into it.
This is no idle threat. While Israel doesn’t have the military capacity to take out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, an Israeli attack would inevitably embroil US forces in a military confrontation that would soon escalate throughout the region. In his speech, Netanyahu made a point of thanking the US for all the military support we’ve given them and he has good reason to be grateful: in arming the Israeli Sparta, we’ve handed him the means to blackmail us. This is "blowback" with a vengeance.
Beyond this threat to drag us into war, the Israeli Prime Minister doesn’t need to make any arguments, but he did anyway, if only for the sake of appearances.
The first argument is that the very nature of the Iranian regime makes them inherently untrustworthy, and therefore any deal that leaves Tehran with a nuclear capacity of any sort will inevitably be violated by the Iranians. An agreement would give them enough "breakout" time, estimated by Netanyahu to be "a matter of weeks," to join the nuclear club as a fait accompli.
Yet "breakout time" is a deceptive phrase, one that is not just a matter of how many centrifuges are spinning out nuclear material. While achieving sufficient nuclear enrichment would take some months – assuming they got everything right, a big assumption – assembling a weapon capable of delivering a nuclear payload is a different matter entirely. Testing and development of a delivery system would take at least a year, if not longer. In the meantime, their efforts would be discovered.
The chances of making such a discovery are considerably reduced if there is no agreement: without inspectors monitoring Iranian nuclear activities, we’d be essentially blinded. If the world wants to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal, the only way to do so is to be on the scene.
Netanyahu gives us the example of North Korea, which did indeed have monitoring by inspectors and cameras installed in its facilities, but "cameras can be turned off," he said. Yes, they can: but then that gives the whole show away. Such a move by Tehran would immediately spark reprisals – not excluding military action. If Iran intended to build nukes, then why would they seek an agreement giving us access – why not just go ahead and start building them?
The truth is that the Iranians, according to our own intelligence community, stopped trying to build a nuke in 2003 and haven’t restarted their program. Netanyahu has been saying Iran is on the brink of acquiring the bomb for years – yet it hasn’t happened. According to the Israeli timetable, Iran should’ve gone nuclear fifteen years ago. After all this time of crying "Wolf!" perhaps we may be forgiven for discounting this umpteenth bout of hysterics.
Netanyahu’s second argument is that the agreement – which hasn’t been reached yet – is said to have an expiration date of ten years. This "sunset" clause supposedly shocked the Israelis, but like so much of what they say in public this is just a lot of hot air. After all, the Bush II administration had roughly the same position, as pointed out by Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a recent Aspen Institute forum: "The Bush administration put on the table the proposition that Iran would be treated as a non-nuclear weapons state after it complied for some period of time with any agreement. And that is exactly what we are doing."
Why didn’t the Israelis raise the alarm then? Because it’s a false alarm, and has nothing to do with the as-yet-to-be-reached agreement. While restrictions on enrichment would eventually end, intrusive inspections would continue – indeed, all signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) are subject to them, and Iran would certainly be no exception.
Israel, which to this day refuses to sign the NPT, has never had its nuclear facilities inspected. Tel Aviv’s arsenal is estimated to contain 100 to 200 nukes.
Netanyahu said nothing new in his peroration: it’s essentially the same act he’s been performing for years, a parody of Winston Churchill. The self-dramatizing, the hyperbole, the whining, the thinly-veiled jabs at his American "allies" – we’ve heard it all before. What stands out, however, given the venue, is the threat to "stand alone," i.e. launch a war that would rope us in. Implicit in this threat is the possibility that Israel could unleash its unacknowledged nuclear arsenal on Iran – a threat made explicit a few years ago in an op ed piece by an Israeli academic with close ties to the Israeli government.
One would like to think this is a bluff. After all, the whole world would condemn Israel in the wake of such a horror, but there’s little reason to think this would deter Netanyahu. After all, according to him, an agreement would inevitably mean Iran would "soon" have a nuclear arsenal, and this represents an "existential threat" to the Jewish state. Given his "logic," then, we have every reason to believe Bibi would push the button – and do precisely what he accuses the Iranians of preparing to do.
The other day, Matt Drudge ran a third-hand report that originally appeared in a Kuwaiti newspaper claiming President Obama had threatened to shoot down Israeli war planes on their way to attack Iran. At the time, I viewed this unsubstantiated rumor with a gimlet eye, but after listening to Bibi’s speech it takes on a more credible dimension. And if the report is true – if Netanyahu, during one of his fits of hysteria, really did seriously threaten to bomb Tehran – then Obama’s threat to intercept and shoot them down represents the first supportable use of American military power in recent memory.
If it really did come to that, I have no doubt that the American people – unlike their Congress – would breathe a sigh of relief. The only people in this country who want another war in the Middle East are the fanatic "end times" evangelical Christians and the neocons. Sixty-one percent of the American people support the current negotiations with Iran – and that same number represents the views of Republicans, with 66 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Independents concurring.
Netanyahu’s American trip was widely perceived as an election-year stunt designed to buttress the Prime Minister’s position back home, but in reality it has had the opposite effect. Butting heads with Israel’s chief patron and benefactor can’t be considered a wise election strategy. But the Israelis weren’t Bibi’s target audience: his ranting is aimed at the American people, and specifically their alleged representatives in Congress.
Bibi’s problem is that he wants war, and Americans want peace. Efforts to get Joe Sixpack riled up over the "existential threat" allegedly embodied by Iran have run into war-weariness – and, to be sure, an Israel-weariness that really began to show up after the last attack on Gaza, where the news accounts of children under fire from Israeli war planes brought home for the first time the ugliness of the Israeli occupation. Yet the American Congress has always been a bulwark of knee-jerk support for Israel, and this was underscored by the congressional reaction to the speech – the spectacle of the "peoples’ representatives" interrupting Bibi with wild applause forty times in a forty-minute speech while he sought to undermine an American President.
All in all, a disgusting display of obsequious servility to a foreign leader, with Republicans in the lead. Like North Koreans abjectly competing with each other to see who can applaud the "Dear Leader" the loudest, they scrambled to exhibit their undying loyalty to Bibi. Underscoring just how bizarre was this orgy of adulation, we have one National Review scribe actually scolding Sen. Rand Paul for appearing "less than enthused" during the speech. A panoply of tweets by various Likudniks is hauled out, gasping and guffawing at the Senator’s lèse-majesté. Like their North Korea equivalents, these people don’t even realize how pathetic they are. The rest of us, however, are beginning to realize it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.