Guest Writer: Jonathan Sacerdoti

Political commentator Jonathan Sacerdoti argues that Netanyahu’s Congress speech was more than electioneering.

“Perhaps the most surprising part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US congress was hearing him catalogue so clearly and unashamedly the list of crimes and acts of aggression carried out by the Iranian regime.

He spoke of Iran’s domination of Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. He reminded America that Iran has “taken dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.” And he pointed out that even under the supposedly more moderate President Rouhani, the Iranian government has continued to hang homosexuals, persecute Christians, imprison journalists and execute prisoners in record numbers.

It is not just Israel which is concerned, but a whole host of Arab countries in the region, too. Leaked US diplomatic cables from 2008 reported King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urging the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Those living in the Middle East know that an Iran moving ever closer to nuclear arms capability will prove difficult or impossible to stop when it continues to carry out further acts of regional dominance and increased terror attacks. Netanyahu concluded, “if Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.”

None of this was new: Netanyahu’s speech stuck closely to the familiar messages he has been repeating for years. What was surprising about hearing this clear-headed summary of the appalling record of the brutal Iranian regime expressed so confidently yesterday in Washington DC, was that it took an Israeli to stand up and say it. The Obama administration’s open criticisms of Mr Netanyahu and his acceptance of House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to congress at all, ensured that the event received extensive international coverage before it had even happened. Yet in all that valuable airtime, and across all those column inches, there was no such memorable declaration by the President of the United States himself – the leader of the free world – of the dangers and evils of the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, Iran. For that, Congress had to rely on the leader of the tiny state of Israel.

The Obama administration had focused its efforts on criticising Netanyahu personally, manufacturing a partisan split in the American allegiance to its greatest Middle Eastern ally, rather than engaging as forcefully in any discussion of the actual issues in question. When President Obama did address the negotiations themselves, he did so in dry, measured terms; despite his reputation for memorable and rousing oratory, his words had little impact compared to Netanyahu’s virtuoso performance on Tuesday. They seemed to lack the urgency and authenticity of the Israeli Prime Minister’s appeal to Congress.

Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton had no problem delivering confident speeches condemning their enemies, and explaining why American superiority was unquestionable. Indeed, their oratory was most memorable when so doing. But despite its lack of respect for democracy, its lack of equality for women, its persecution of minorities, its support for terrorism, its declarations of genocidal intent, its development of nuclear weapons technology and all its other shortcomings, definitively condemning and criticising 21st Century Iran seems to be beyond Mr Obama’s abilities or desires.

Obama has made it clear that his respect for Netanyahu is limited. The two men do not get along. But Tuesday’s speech showed that however unpopular he might be as a personality, as a Prime Minister Netanyahu is willing to take risks in pursuit of a strategic goal. His clarity of thought coupled with his determination to pursue policies based on his strongly-held beliefs wins the argument every time over Obama’s concentration on personal attacks and political maneuvering. But Netanyahu’s challenge is not yet over.

This was not just a speech; it was a high-stakes gamble. In Israel the political scene is characterised by argument, disagreement, short-lived political parties and shorter-lived political careers. The debate is intense and sometimes even fierce, yet on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat there is consensus from left, through the centre, all the way to the right. While Netanyahu’s speech might have divided opinion in his own country, Israelis of all colours and stripes know they cannot live under the shadow of a nuclear armed Iran. Iran has been shown to be arming terrorist groups which now surround Israel, both in the north and in the south. Just last week the BBC reported from Hamas controlled Gaza, showing a stockpile of “M48” missiles ready for use against Israel, all of them identical in appearance to the Iranian-made 120mm mortars intercepted by the IDF in 2009 aboard the ‘Francop’. As Netanyahu pointed out, Ayatollah Khamenei has even tweeted that Israel must be annihilated. Despite such a consensus, Israelis across the political spectrum also know that in order to defeat the Iranian threat they cannot act alone. Israel needs the support of the USA – support that many do not believe it has in any practical sense.

Netanyahu’s speeches are often impressive, we have come to expect that, but standing ovations won’t stop Iranian nuclear developments. By refusing to back down and cancel his speech, by refusing to be bullied into compliance when he disagreed with Obama’s strategy and by standing up for a robust and fact-based reading of the situation in the Middle East, Netanyahu has called Obama’s bluff. But will this gamble succeed? Can any Prime Minister of Israel truly expect to coerce a reluctant US President into changing his mind, or at least his strategy? Netanyahu bet the farm on this working: for him there was no other way. Whether history judges this gamble to be bravery or folly depends on the conclusion of the P5+1 talks with Iran.”

Jonathan Sacerdoti is a political and cultural commentator concentrating on the Middle East.

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