Relentless pressure is being brought to bear on Benjamin Netanyahu: pressure to back down from his agreement to speak to the joint houses of Congress in March at the invitation of Speaker John Boehner.
The pressure comes from both sides of the political spectrum, although it is much stronger from the left. Every artifice of human ingenuity is being used to frame his visit prejudicially. Each day brings more ridicule of what he’s doing and what the Republicans are doing. Reports emerge hourly that Netanyahu is planning to revise his remarks, or not come at all – because many in the media want it to be so. The same goes for incessant reports that Democrats in Congress won’t attend the speech.
Some Democrats undoubtedly won’t; a small number (three at last count) have committed to absenting themselves from it.
But this is all so much noise. None of it can change the key, overriding fact that must drive Netanyahu’s decision, and the preference of the American people. That fact is that no amount of “cooperating” with Barack Obama or his policies will result in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. There is no political option for Netanyahu of satisfying Obama and obtaining thereby the result that Iran doesn’t get the bomb.
Netanyahu of all people has to be clear-eyed about that. But I believe many ordinary Americans and Israelis see it as well. Obama backs down from declared deadlines and “red lines.” It’s what he does. Needing further proof of his unvarying pattern is a form of severely dysfunctional unwisdom at this point; one the people are less afflicted with than our opinion leaders are.
Average people may not be able to cite the timeline the world faces this spring. But it has been scheduled since November 2014 to come to a head with a deadline, for a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the P5+1, on 24 March. And no one with common sense will be surprised that, just today, the U.S. government has backed down from holding to that date as a deadline.
The month of March promises to be one of the most fraught in human history. As it appears now, the Obama administration will clarify for the world that it has no intention of holding Iran to deadlines or verifiable agreements. Israel, the only nation left to take some kind of focused action that could at least delay Iran’s progress, will decide whether she will have a prime minister who sees the necessity for that.
This isn’t a political game. The fate of nations hangs in the balance. A bomb for Iran isn’t the only thing shaping the crisis point either. The territorial jockeying of Iran and Islamic State has just expanded the Syria-Iraq war to Jordan. Both Iran and Islamic State are trying to bring the war to Israel: to make Israel insert herself into it, and thus expand it catastrophically, as a self-defense measure.
There is nothing setting boundaries for how big this conflict can get. The Middle East has not seen such a period of open-ended opportunity, unbounded by the dominant power of an outside hegemon, since the 1400s, when the European West and the Ottoman Muslims were fighting over the future of the old Byzantine Empire. The “Westphalian” order and its post-1919 arrangements has all but broken down from the coast of Lebanon and Syria to the Zagros Mountains of Iran. This is not something we will all survive with our life of five years ago, or our existing borders, intact.
What Netanyahu knows at this hour is that he must prepare Israel as best he can. Israel may have to act. He needs to ensure that she has the strongest possible strategic position from which to do so. And surveying the geopolitical landscape, he must see, whether critics like it or not, that Israel’s greatest concentrated source of support is the people of the United States.
It is before this people that he needs to stand and make his case. He has to come to the people’s house and say the words that need to be said. Obama will not do it. The shame of that is a matter for another time; what counts now is that Netanyahu must.
We are far beyond the petty calculations of domestic politics at this point. There is no other place on earth for Netanyahu to go, to do what has to be done.
There is practical meaning to his speech, on multiple levels. The support of the American people for his appearance and what he says will be evident – and it will have an impact on the actors of the Middle East.
It will set 2017 in their minds as a waypoint that will matter, for one thing. They can’t make assumptions going beyond that. But it will also clarify that Obama won’t have a free hand to try to thwart Israel, if she does act. It would be a mistake to count out the American people’s support for Israel. The Republican majority may not be unified on issues like debt deadlines, immigration policy, and Obamacare, but if there’s one thing Congress could override a presidential veto on – even provoke a crisis of government, and force Obama’s hand – it’s policy on backing Israel in an existential crisis.
If Netanyahu and the U.S. Congress can establish that, on 3 March, it may be possible for the looming crisis to pass without an evil outcome. I would rather Israel not have to attack Iran in 2015, or take the bait being offered by Iran in the Golan, and probably, soon, by IS-backed jihadis in Jordan. Daunting Iran – showing the mullahs that the time isn’t right for game-changing moves – is the best way to get a delay.
Only the express determination of credible leaders can have even that limited, but welcome, effect. Obama is not one of those leaders. But his people are still a unique source of credibility in the world. As the reputation of the Israeli people deters Israel’s enemies, the reputation of the American people is the main thing that has kept the old order from collapsing before now.
I believe, in fact, that even most Democrats in Congress will attend Netanyahu’s speech – not because they think specific sanctions legislation would have magical powers (a largely superficial focus in any case), but because their hearts, along with their constituents, will tell them it’s the right thing to do.
America needs this opportunity as much as Israel does. The flak will intensify as we get closer to the target, but that can’t be helped. A war has already started, and sides are forming. Come and speak, Bibi.