Ron Radosh

Why I've Changed My Mind about Netanyahu's Speech to Congress

I would like to do an update on my last column, which apparently angered many PJM readers.  Since I wrote it, there have been new developments which should be taken into consideration  when looking at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s forthcoming speech to both houses of Congress. I previously expressed the view that Netanyahu should have handled things differently and worked to stop Iran from getting a bomb without making an appearance in Washington since that  had the effect of  enraging the administration. Some have argued his action could even endanger the U.S.-Israeli alliance as well as bipartisan support of Israel.

The view that it is a folly for Netanyahu to appear was argued today by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, a strong supporter of Israel who is a liberal Democrat. Cohen writes that the U.S. has to give the negotiations more time to succeed, and agrees with the administration that  “additional sanctions may drive the Iranians from the table.” I find that argument more than naïve. Cohen ignores the many statements of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who insists that Iran must develop a bomb and that it has a right to do so. It can thus be argued that no matter how long the U.S. keeps extending the deadline, Iran will work steadily day by day to come as close as possible to achieve their goal.  Certainly, negotiations without sanctions will make it easier.

Cohen also ignores that Iran already has more than one bomb’s worth of enriched material, a plutonium track close to completion and almost 90 percent there. Moreover, Iran recently announced that it is building two more nuclear plants — proving that the administration is wrong when it claims Iran’s nuclear program has been halted.

Cohen, however, has another concern — that Netanyahu’s appearance could endanger the long-standing “bipartisan understanding and support of Israel” and that “support of Israel will become a partisan political issue in the United States.” In other words, Democrats could be incensed at what they see as an insult to the president and the nation and therefore might be more inclined to reject a vote for sanctions should the current talks lack results.

Cohen’s argument questioning the effectiveness of Netanyahu’s visit was reinforced by an analysis appearing in today’s Times of Israel. In this issue, Raphael Ahren writes:

It is highly doubtful, however, that the prime minister’s March 3 speech will succeed in making Israel much safer; if anything, it could turn out to be counterproductive.  A polished and passionate speech, delivered in unaccented American English, is sure to be greeted with minutes-long standing ovations. But will it persuade even a single lawmaker to change his or her position on the Iran sanctions bills that are currently under discussion in Washington?

The bill under discussion, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, known as the Kirk-Menendez bill, began being circulated out of the Senate Banking Committee on January 16th. It threatens to expand sanctions on Iran should it not come to a comprehensive nuclear deal by the official deadline of July 1, 2015. Ahren believes that no one will change their position as a result of this speech, because the legislators are already familiar with the issues, and have already made their decision on how to vote when the Kirk-Menendez bill comes before the House and Senate. He fears that Bibi’s speech “might actually lead the Iran sanctions bills to fail when otherwise they might have succeeded, according to several experts, including top officials in Jerusalem.” In other words, his sources tell him that the affront to the White House “will lead some Congressmen who originally favored the sanctions bill to vote against it, making its success virtually impossible.” An Israeli expert on U.S-Israeli relations told him that “Netanyahu’s actions were so blatant that some Democrats, who might otherwise support more sanctions, will side with the president.”

This argument, however, has lost force as a result of developments that took place today. An important group of Senate Democrats — including Menendez and New York’s Chuck Schumer –has told the administration in a letter that they will not support a vote on the sanctions bill until March 24th, therefore  putting off  what had previously been imminent. And if a vote was taken, with Democrats holding off, the Kirk-Menendez bill would not have enough votes to overtake a presidential veto. They also told Obama, as the Times of Israel reports, they will support passage “only if there is no political framework agreement because, as the letter [to the President] states, we remain hopeful that diplomacy will succeed in reversing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability.” The letter ended, however, with the understanding that “they remain very skeptical that Iran is committed to making the concessions necessary to demonstrate to the world that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful by March 24.”

So while the Democrats have delayed acting until March, a step that appears at first glance to  give Obama more time to negotiate while Iran enriches its stockpile and builds more centrifuges, in reality, as The Hill reports, in effect the letter “warned the White House” that they will vote for a sanctions bill in two months — not a long time period — if Iran does “not roll back the country’s nuclear program.” Moreover, in addition to Democrats Menendez and Schumer, there will now be 10 additional Democrats pledging to do so in both the House and Senate. The signers include Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Gary Peters (Mich), Bob Casey Jr. (PA), Ben Cardin (MD), Chris Coons (Del), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Debbie Stabenow (Michigan). These Democrats have made it clear that they are not buying the administration’s line that to put forth a sanctions bill will empower those so-called hard-liners in Iran.  To the contrary, they argue that a bill would put serious pressure on the Iranian regime to pull back, which they will not do without the pressure of sanctions. On the other hand, their move gives the administration a little breathing room and forestalls Republicans who would have wanted to act more quickly.

The last line of the Menendez letter says that the bill is “reasonable and pragmatic,” but “sends a strong signal to Iran…that endless negotiations under the interim agreement are dangerous, unacceptable, and could leave Iran with a threshold nuclear weapon capability.” And as Omri Ceren of The Israel Project points out, the bill can no longer be portrayed as simply a message of Republican and neo-conservative hardliners in the U.S. Instead of Democrats staying “frozen on the sidelines,” it means when it comes up for a vote it will be with bipartisan support.

Josh Block, CEO of The Israel Project, points out in a message just sent out that, contrary to those who argue the Democrats caved in to Obama (as in the analysis in Times of Israel), the Democrats’ letter to the White House says that if the negotiations fail by the July deadline “there will be negative consequences.” All the steps putting the bill in the process of going to the Senate will now have solid bipartisan support. It has already just been officially introduced, Block reports, “with 16 original co-sponsors, nine Republicans and seven Democrats.” This means, he notes, that the sponsors already have between 62 and 65 supporters of the bill, “close to the 67 needed for an override of a veto.” There are 52 Republicans, 10 Democrats, and three more who co-sponsored the bill in the last Congress. Thus, Block concludes, “opponents of the bill, including the White House, have misrepresented it and implied [incorrectly] that it would impose sanctions during negotiations.” As we know, the bill would implement sanctions only after the Iranians have not reached an agreement by July.

In light of this, I think that Netanyahu’s upcoming speech will actually have the effect of bolstering both Republican and Democrat support of the bill.  Marc Thiessen  has written a compelling argument for why Bibi should come and present his speech. He writes in his Washington Post column that in fact Netanyahu is not doing anything that the Obama administration itself has not done:

Clearly, it is not a breach of protocol for a foreign leader to lobby Congress. After all, Obama himself deployed British Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby lawmakers to oppose new sanctions on Iran. It seems Netanyahu’s crime is not so much a breach of diplomatic protocol, but rather, opposing the administration’s position…..If the leader of one of our closest allies is so worried about the deal Obama is going to cut with Iran that he is willing to risk a diplomatic rift with the administration to speak out, perhaps the problem is not with Israel, but with the Obama administration.

Thiessen also exposes the hypocrisy of the administration:

Obama claims that new sanctions on Iran “will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails.” If the mere threat of sanctions is enough to derail Iran’s nuclear talks, then whatever deal is in the works is not worth having. It means that Obama is far more desperate for a deal than Tehran is — which is a sure-fire way to guarantee a bad agreement.

I now think Netanyahu has good reason to come and give his speech, since it will bolster the resolution of  Congress, will be an appeal to both Republicans and Democrats, and will reach  the American people with his sharp analysis of the high stakes if Iran got a nuclear weapon.  At this point, Netanyahu would have much more to lose by doing an about face and canceling his trip.