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By Tom Cushing

The Netanyahu Speech: Kumen, Kvetching, Kibitzing

Uploaded: Mar 5, 2015

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu did what he does: he came, he complained and he offered unsolicited advice.

In a controversial speech to the US Congress, Netanyahu inveighed against a long-term nuclear arms deal among six countries (The so-called I-5 plus one, I'll use I-6) with Iran, saying that it "paved the way for the Teheran regime to get The Bomb." Predictably, his complaints were two: that the world did not get enough concessions from Iran, and the deal only lasts ten years.

Netanyahu faces an election challenge later this month. When you look at this situation in context, it's easy to agree with Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, and conclude that this media event was all about that re-election campaign, and not a serious attempt to affect the nearly-concluded arms talks. As Todd noted at a CityArts lecture in SF Tuesday evening, the PM does well when playing Tough Guy: when Israel stirs the pot and skirmishes with various enemies, his poll numbers jump; in more placid interludes, they sink. This speech to Congress was scheduled months ago, to coincide with the run-up to the March 17 election. There are several reasons to go with Todd's characterization.

First, this was an event, not a process. A serious attempt to intercede or advise these negotiations would involve all six world-side nations, not just the US. It would have included various gestures to curry favor with those countries, especially England, France and Germany. It would also have attempted to sway public opinion (as it is, more than 60% of both Republican and Dem voters in this country favor the Iran process underway). Each of those European negotiators (and the US) has fundamental difficulties with important aspects of current Israeli policy ? most notably the continuing land-grab settlements on the West Bank. Israel under Netanyahu has rejected those concerns and aggressively continued building. Bargaining is a matter of give-and-take; a serious attempt to ante-in to this process would've had a lot more 'give' on issues of concern to the I-6.

Second, Netanyahu's complaints clearly miscast these negotiations. The concessions he indicated ought to have been included went far beyond the purpose of forestalling The Bomb ? they included Iran's destroying all enriching capacity (including to produce much lower grades of fuel useful in other purposes) and renouncing support of Hezbollah. Ultimate World Peace was not on the table ? forestalling Iran's nuclear ambitions is quite enough.

Those further topics were simply not achievable without bellicosity and bluffing that would have been beyond the capacity of the I-6 to carry-off. It amounts to saying "Shmuck! With better cards you might have won a bigger pot." Thanks for the insight. Further, the charge that ten years is too few is too easy to make: had it been twelve, it should have been fifteen, and fifteen could have been twenty. A lot can happen in a decade, even on Middle East standard time.

Third, he offered no different approach to substitute for these negotiations. While that absence might not have bothered his GOP admirers, it's a very incomplete answer. If you are arguing that ten years is too brief, you have to answer for the fact that a 'no agreement' outcome is ten years briefer. He offered no alternative, other than continued tough-guy sanctions and military posturing that got us here in the first place.

Moreover, Netanyahu has a credibility problem on this issue that dates to the early 1990s. Then he warned that Iran was a year away from a Bomb. Later he contradicted both the CIA and his own Mossad to again proclaim the imminence of the threat. He also has a habit of charging that the opposition will surely cheat ? but there's pretty good empirical and intelligence evidence that they have complied with the interim accord. Inspections are an important element in any longer term accord.

There is no question that the stakes are high, here. If Iran does produce a Bomb (which Israel has had for many years), even if they don't use it, they will set off an arms race among various other actors in that tinderbox, whose regimes are less stable than Plutonium. As columnist Tom Friedman wrote, pithily: "There are actors in the Middle East for whom 'mutual assured destruction' is an invitation to a party ? not a system of mutual deterrence." That's a crisis for the whole globe, but an existential threat to the Jewish State. It is easy to see why Israel wants back on the varsity ? they rightly see their very survival as intimately woven into this process.

That said, Netanyahu's approach, including the political theater in the Capitol yesterday, just doesn't have much to do with that bigger picture. Nobody likes a kibitzer, and kvetching doesn't get you a seat at the table ? but it might get you re-elected.