In the run-up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday, one important question was being asked that is worthwhile to revisit in the aftermath of the Israeli premier’s address:
Will Netanyahu’s speech help prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?
This, of course, was Netanyahu’s stated reason for taking the podium before Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner.
On one side, many argue that, by bringing his case to Congress, Netanyahu may have been able to halt a disastrous deal between the Obama Administration and Iran from within.
These commentators and pundits claim that Netanyahu had the opportunity to energize opponents of the deal being discussed and convince those on the fence that such a deal would be a nightmare. In turn, so the argument goes, lawmakers would be emboldened to try to block a deal with Iran, and the American public would be energized to organize against it. With one speech, therefore, Netanyahu would singlehandedly be able to prevent a bad deal with Iran from being reached and the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon.
On the other side, many argue that Netanyahu’s speech has only damaged Israel’s interests and weakened any say Israel might have had in the ongoing talks.
Members of this camp point out that one of Israel’s most vital interests is to maintain close relations with the United States, the world’s greatest superpower and top provider of aid to the Jewish State. They argue that by publicly expressing disagreements with the Obama Administration in an open session of Congress, Netanyahu is severely undermining these ties. As evidence, some point to reports (which surfaced before the speech was delivered) that in the run-up to Netanyahu’s address, the Obama Administration decided to stop briefing Israeli officials on the progress of the talks with Iran. Therefore, so this argument goes, Israel is already losing what little clout it had in the talks to begin with.
To a certain degree, both sides are correct: Netanyahu’s speech will undoubtedly energize lawmakers and others who oppose a deal with Iran, and it will also put a severe strain on relations with the Obama Administration at a very crucial time.
But what about the central question? Will Netanyahu’s speech help in his (and, coincidentally, the Obama Administration’s) goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?
Unfortunately, it will be impossible to answer this question for years or even decades. It will likely be for historians and analysts far into the future to decide whether or not Netanyahu’s speech had an influence on whatever happens (or does not happen) in Iranian-American negotiations – and what happens after they end.
That being the case, all one can do is focus on the here and now – the waves Netanyahu’s speech will surely generate in America against a deal and the turbulence in the Netanyahu government’s relations with the Obama Administration. Observers will also be prudent to keep an eye on the upcoming Israeli elections on March 17. In less than two weeks, the Israeli people may topple Prime Minister Netanyahu at the ballot box and usher in a new government headed by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. This would likely put American-Israeli relations on an entirely different trajectory and could therefore alter the ongoing Israeli-American-Iranian saga significantly.
Justin Scott Finkelstein is the Harvey Sicherman Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.