As we all would be aware by now, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a controversial speech to a joint session of Congress in the United States last week.
The controversy actually began several weeks ago and well before PM Netanyahu even uttered a single word.
The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Republican John Boehner, extended the invitation to speak without consulting President Obama, which was regarded as a breach in protocol. Obama immediately declared that he would not be meeting with PM Netanyahu on this visit, citing the close proximity to the Israeli elections as his reason. Much of the criticism of Netanyahu’s visit was centred on this argument; that Netanyahu could have waited until after those elections, IF he was in fact, re-elected.
On the other hand, Netanyahu argued that given the subject matter, the US and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) reaching a nuclear accord with Iran, he could not wait until after the elections. Internally and externally, he faced great pressure, but ultimately, Netanyahu maintained he was doing this not just on behalf of Israel but on behalf of Jews around the world, and so he went to America.
Iran is a country that is hostile to both America and Israel and its leaders have on many occasions threatened to wipe out the Jewish State. It sponsors Hezbollah and has underwritten various terrorist groups including the one that recently overthrew the regime in Yemen. It has an abject human rights record and has shown little reliability in previous attempts made to resolve matters diplomatically. Nevertheless, it agreed to go down the path of diplomacy on the issue of achieving a nuclear deal largely by the leverage of economic sanctions imposed by many in the international community international community, resulting in some concessions by Iran. However, there is evidence that the Iranians continue to move forward dangerously in research and development of advanced generations of centrifuges which would offset previous concessions while they march inexorably towards the production of nuclear weapons.
Prime Minister Netanyahu opened his speech by thanking everyone for attending, acknowledging his visit to Congress had “been the subject of much controversy”, which he deeply regretted. Despite being snubbed by President Obama, he showed his appreciation for all the Obama administration has done for Israel, for such things that are widely known like assistance with the Iron Dome as well as lesser known matters pertaining to sensitive and strategic issues.
Having gotten all of the formalities out of the way (with rousing applause every few sentences) Netanyahu then turned to the reason why he was there – Iran; to what might happen if the nuclear accord is made and to possible alternatives.
He told Congress that the Iranian regime “is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazi regime was merely a Jewish problem. The 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis were but a fraction of the 60 million people killed in World War II. So, too, Iran’s regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also to the peace of the entire world”.
He pointed out that not only does Iran have “goons in Gaza”, “lackeys in Lebanon” and “revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights” that are “clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror” but also that “in the Middle East, Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow … So at a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations”.
While world leaders may have been hopeful for some sort of reform or change in Iran when President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif came into power two years ago, the government today still “hangs gays, persecutes Christians, jails journalists and executes even more prisoners than before”.
Prime Minister Netanyahu also made an interesting observation about the differences, or more accurately, the similarities between some of the aims of ISIS and the aims of Iran when he said, “don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America … Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree on who will be the ruler of that empire … In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed, no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.”
So what is the difference between the two? That ISIS “is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube, whereas Iran could soon be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs … To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but lose the war. We can’t let that happen”.
He also made a strong point about the expiration date of any deal with Iran, noting that it does not have any foresight into what will happen when the deal automatically expires in ten years time. And his observations are not based on Israel’s analysis of the situation, but from the Iranians themselves, who say they plan to have 10 times the amount of centrifuges they have now in ten years’ time. By Netanyahu’s analysis, in this time Iran is not going to magically change for the better, and in the meantime, it will open up a new arms race in the Middle East which would prove to be extremely dangerous. In his words, “we’ll face a more dangerous Iran, a Middle East littered with nuclear bombs and a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare”. The idea of “mutually assured destruction” may have been a deterrent during the Cold War, but it is a totally different story when you are talking about genocidal maniacs with nothing to lose.
So what should the world demand of Iran before making a deal?
1. Stop its aggression against its neighbours in the Middle East.
2. Stop supporting terrorism and terrorists around the world.
3. Stop threatening to annihilate Israel.
If these things don’t occur before a deal is made, then it should certainly be a priority before it expires.
Much of the justification in favour of a deal with Iran has centred around the idea that any deal is better than no deal and that Iran is already on a path that cannot be rolled back. PM Netanyahu argues that “nuclear know-how without nuclear infrastructure doesn’t get you very much. A race car driver without a car can’t drive. A pilot without a plane can’t fly. Without thousands of centrifuges, tonnes of enriched uranium or heavy water facilities, Iran can’t make nuclear weapons”.
The Prime Minister said that the alternative to the bad deal should be a much better deal. In the audience for Netanyahu’s speech was Holocaust survivor and author, Elie Weisel. PM Netanyahu turned to him and said, “Elie, your life and work inspires to give meaning to the words, ‘never again’… And I wish I could promise you, Eli, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past”. He continued with a promise, “I can guarantee you this – the days when 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 for 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”.
The speech was criticised by Netanyahu’s opponents within Israel, by President Obama and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and not surprisingly, by the Iranians
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog said, “there is no doubt that Netanyahu is a good speaker, but let’s be honest, the speech we heard today, as impressive as it was, did not stop the Iranian nuclear program … the painful truth is that, behind the applause, Netanyahu remains alone. And the negotiations will continue without any Israeli involvement.” However, he did say that “the determination to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon goes across continents and across party line … As Prime Minister, I am obligated to from the widest possible international front to ensure Israel’s security demands are met”. He finished by saying, “this speech is a very harsh wound to Israel-US relations … It will not change the position of the administration, it will only widen the rift with Israel’s greatest ally and strategic partner”.
Meanwhile, Zehava Gal-On, the leader of Meretz accused Netanyahu of “chutzpah”, saying, “It’s like David Cameron coming to the Knesset and telling Netanyahu that he is endangering the security of Israel.” On this point, the difference may be that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and this makes Israel a legitimate player in the discussions.
Meanwhile, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett supported the speech and criticised the Israeli Opposition saying, “I was disappointed by the behaviour of opposition leaders like Buji [Herzog], Tzipi [Livni] and Yair [Lapid], who should have been there by Netanyahu’s side, and if not should get out of the way and stop bothering”.
By the way, can you tell Israel is in election mode?
Meanwhile, Former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, who is now a part of Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu party said that the main issue was never whether Netanyahu should speak but “how and where”, saying that all of this controversy could have been avoided if he spoke after the elections in two weeks.
President Obama, who said he did not watch the speech but fortunately got his hands on a copy of the transcript, said that there was “nothing new” in the speech.
Meanwhile, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi was unimpressed with PM Netanyahu saying that she was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States”. She continued, “today, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated something we all agree upon: a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable to both our countries. We have all said that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is the bedrock of our foreign policy and national security … As President Obama has said consistently, all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran”.
President Obama and Nancy Pelosi may not have liked Netanyahu’s speech, but they were not alone, with Iranian FM Zarif saying that Netanyahu is trying to create tension and “I don’t think trying to create tension and conflict helps anyone”.
Of course developing nuclear weapons that can be aimed at a country you routinely announce you would like to wipe off the map does not really help relieve tension either. Zarif also rejected President Obama’s request to freeze activity for ten years, saying it was unacceptable so perhaps Netanyahu might have a point anyway.
Interestingly, a few days later Zarif, perhaps mindful of the timing of the speech and the Jewish festival of Purim, came out saying that the Iranians have actually been the saviours of the Jewish people on at least three occasions throughout history, and that Iran is a safe haven for Jews.
Right, so when does my peace flight land in Tehran?
Meanwhile, Iran continues to deny the Holocaust and run cartoon competitions that specifically evoke the memory of the Shoah and its evil perpetrators as well as funding and arming terrorists in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria bent on committing another genocide against Jews while a chorus of deluded minds in the West keep up their calls for a boycott of the Jewish State in support of its ultimate destruction and some even blame Israel for the recent violent killings of Jews in Europe rather than the jihadists who perpetrate them.
Perhaps the last word should be left to Elie Wiesel who, despite his great respect for President Obama, did not feel that standing up for Israel should cause him offence. Wiesel said, “we are a people that has always spoken up… I cannot allow myself to live in a world where somebody will need me and I will not answer.”
Media & Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia
03 9272 5618