He spoke before Congress for 40 minutes, sweeping it off its feet. It was, without doubt, the speech of his lifetime, although according to Israeli pollsters it added merely one Knesset seat to his shrinking tally of votes. He did the unthinkable by by passing Barack Obama and turning directly to the American people from the congressional podium, pummeling their president with hard truths.
He showed daring and pluck, as if he himself were the American president, explaining with didactic patience the questions that stand at the basis of the agreement that is shaping up with Iran.
Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democratic minority, wept tears of frustration and rage and humiliation, while John Boehner, leader of the Republican majority, claimed that no current member of Congress could have done a better job than Netanyahu in showing why the agreement must be rejected. As for Obama, he said that Netanyahu had offered no new alternative, using this point as a blind to avoid hard truths in the speech that should not be ignored.
Netanyahu focused on the fact that Iran has a dictatorial, theocratic regime whose goal is to spread the Shiite revolution. He pointed out that Iran already controls much of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. He added that the prospective agreement will only last 10 years, and that after the lifting of the sanctions Iran will have legitimacy for going ahead with its nuclear program and exerting itself as a regional power. The agreement, he said, will grant the Ayatollahs a long stretch of time in which to entrench their regime.
In relation to the White House, which seeks Iran’s help in fighting ISIS in Iraq, Netanyahu said: “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 among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.” In this case, he memorably said, “the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”
The power of the speech came mainly from the weakness of Obama, that is, from his wrong-headed policy in the Middle East, the roots of which can be seen especially in his approach (or lack thereof) to the Syrian conflict. His attitude toward the Assad regime has been, in effect, conciliatory. When his “red line” was crossed in the use of chemical weapons, he planned a massive bombardment of Assad’s military infrastructure but called it off at the last minute, instead making an agreement through Putin on the withdrawal of chemical weapons from Syria. This lack of support had the effect of debilitating the moderate liberal opposition, the Left, and the Muslim Brotherhood, so that the door was open for ISIS. Only after ISIS took over swathes of Iraq, captured Mosul, and established the “Islamic State,” did Obama take action. Even so, he has been careful not to harm Assad, for he needs the Iranians in order to restore the rule of the Iraqi Shiite government over the Sunni areas that ISIS conquered.
Obama’s desire for an agreement with Iran derives from strategic considerations; above all he does not want to send his soldiers back into Iraq. Iran has been transformed from a bitter enemy to a partner in the war against ISIS. The price is the fall of Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sana’a into Iran’s hands.
Bibi’s contribution to the regional chaos
Obama’s weakness is Netanyahu’s too. Since the Arab Spring, the Arab world has splintered, and the US is left without a firm Arab basis to lean on in its confrontation with Iran.
Israel and the benighted Sunni regimes—namely, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan, and Morocco—share a common hostility toward the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Americans saw the Arab Spring as a historical necessity which threw out the rotten regimes that had reduced their countries to destitution. The Americans were even ready to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood if it was willing to abide by the rules of democracy. Israel and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, saw the fall of Mubarak in Egypt as a strategic catastrophe; they fumed at the White House when it cooperated with the elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. The latter was overthrown, as we know, in a military coup that was funded by the Saudis. The war against the Muslim Brotherhood became a cornerstone of Saudi foreign policy, which was seconded by Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. It was Saudi foreign policy that sparked civil wars not only in Egypt, but in Libya and Yemen as well, and it has spread throughout the region, bringing chaos.
Thus Saudi Arabia and Israel refused to adjust their policies to the deep changes signified by the Arab Spring. Their unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, while spreading the chaos into which ISIS would enter, compelled Obama to transform Iran into the strategic lynchpin of a new regional cooperation. Bibi’s contribution to this development should not be underestimated. The clash between the White House and the Israeli government is by no means limited to the prospective agreement with Iran; it began, we recall, over the Palestinian issue.
During Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Gaza, the American Secretary of State John Kerry supported a Qatari-Turkish proposal for a cease fire, whereas the Israeli cabinet, vilifying Kerry, opted for the “Egyptian” proposal. This position lengthened the war by several long days, until Hamas surrendered. The Egyptians are seeking to strangle Hamas and Gaza without offering a solution to the people living in the Strip. Meanwhile General Sisi is becoming entangled in Sinai, he is trying without success to put together a military force to intervene in Libya, and conditions inside Egypt are deteriorating. Sisi is a worse dictator than Mubarak, and his fate will be no different.
Bibi can preach morality to Obama about appeasing Iran, but what about his own conciliatory approach toward the murderous dictatorship of General Sisi, or toward the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia? How exactly are the regimes of these three countries better than the one in Tehran? Netanyahu is using the chaos that he himself helped sow in the Middle East in order to get re-elected, claiming that with ISIS in the neighborhood there’s no point in making peace with the Palestinians.
The chaos serves the Israeli right wing, to be sure, but it severely damages American strategic interests in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. Given the weakness of the leading Arab nations, Obama turns to the Iranians in order to stabilize the region and obviate the need for a new American conquest of Iraq. And so, irony of ironies, it turns out that Netanyahu contributed with his own hands to the agreement with Iran. Obama asks him correctly, “What is your alternative? What are you willing to offer so that Iran won’t spread its influence?” The answer is—nothing.
Signs of change
While Netanyahu shoots barbs at the American regime without offering a real alternative, the death of the Saudi king Abdullah and his replacement by Salman bin Abdulaziz have created an opportunity for a change in Saudi policy. There are rumors of warmer ties with Turkey. The Saudis, it is also rumored, now recognize that the Muslim Brothers are not the problem in the region, rather they are an essential part of the solution against both ISIS and Iran. General Sisi is losing altitude, and for the first time the Saudis are calling what happened in Egypt “a military coup.” This shows that they want to close ranks with the Americans on the issue.
And what about Bibi Netanyahu? He insists on running with his head against the wall. He collides with America, he collides with Turkey, he apparently balks at the new Saudi position, he erases Abu Mazen, and he remains faithful to General Sisi. Bibi, Sisi, and Assad stand against the world. That isolates Israel, of course, but Bibi seems to think it will help him get elected.
The prospective agreement with Iran is no solution to the chaos in the Middle East. Instead, because it will strengthen Iran, which exacerbates ethnic rifts, the agreement is likely to heighten the crisis that is working in favor of ISIS. It isn’t all that bad for Israel, but it is very bad indeed for the Iranian people, who have suffered oppression for 36 years. It is also very bad for the Iraqi people, because it will deepen the war between Shiites and Sunnis. It is very bad for the Syrians, because it will leave Assad in power. And it is very bad for the Yemenites, which have split into two countries, the pro-Iranian north and the pro-Saudi south.
Iran is the enemy of the Arab Spring, just as the Saudi kingdom is. Bibi, Sisi, Assad, Salman, and Khamenei—all are enemies of democracy and social justice. The agreement with Iran will not advance these causes either. The Iranian regime is responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians. The best alternative to the agreement, for those who love freedom, is to depose Assad in Syria. That would be a major blow to Iran and a boost for democracy in the Middle East—against the will of Bibi.