Since first becoming prime minister in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu has hammered away at Iran’s nuclear program, calling it the greatest threat to Israel. Yet Tuesday’s speech to Congress, like many before it, sharply criticized the international response to Iran while offering relatively little as an alternative.
As a skilled politician, Netanyahu managed to put himself on center stage and forcefully make his case at a key moment in the nuclear negotiations, which are taking place in Switzerland between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S.
“That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, it will all but guarantee that they will get nuclear weapons,” the prime minister told both houses of Congress.
“This deal will not be a farewell to arms. It will be a farewell to arms control,” Netanyahu said in his speech that was repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations.
Netanyahu has delivered similar versions of this speech for two decades and used it to maximum effect Tuesday, tapping into several other hot-button issues as well: the looming Israeli election, U.S. partisan politics and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
So after all the controversy, has he moved the needle in his favor on any of these key issues? Here’s a look:
Israel’s Election: Netanyahu is locked in a tough election fight on March 17 with his job and his political future on the line. This campaign, like previous ones, has featured Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an overriding issue.
In a neck-and-neck race, it’s not clear what effect the speech might have on the outcome. But he delivered a strong, polished address and presented himself as the leader best equipped to deal with Israel’s toughest security question.
Netanyahu’s emphasis on hawkish security positions has proved a winning formula in the past — he has captured three elections and been prime minister for nine of the past 19 years.
If he wins a fourth term, Netanyahu, 65, will have triumphed while pushing hard on his signature issue. If he loses, his political career could be in serious jeopardy.
The Nuclear Talks: It’s crunch time for the nuclear talks. Unless, of course, they get extended, as has often happened. Iran and the six world powers are trying to reach a political agreement by the end of March and a comprehensive deal by the end of June.
There are countless reasons to be skeptical about deadlines, to question Iran’s claim that it doesn’t want nuclear weapons and to doubt that an agreement will be reached no matter how long the negotiations drag on.
“This is a bad deal. A very bad deal. We’re better off without it,” Netanyahu said.
Still, a deal does seem possible. President Obama clearly wants it and has less than two years left in office. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani favors it as well, though he faces a wall of opposition from Iranian hardliners. Iran’s economy is hurting from sanctions and low oil prices, and a deal may be Iran’s only way out of its current economic predicament.
Netanyahu argued that Iran cannot be trusted and would receive far too many concessions. Much of its nuclear infrastructure would remain in place. Key restrictions are expected to remain in place for just a decade, but would then fall away.
So what does the Israeli leader want?
Israel’s Options: Iran’s nuclear program has been on Israel’s radar for a generation, yet Israel has limited options and has largely looked to the United States to contain or roll back the Iranians.
Netanyahu has often taken the maximalist position that Iran should completely abandon its nuclear program, which dates to the 1970s and includes multiple facilities scattered throughout the country.
The Obama administration and its negotiating partners view this stance as unrealistic. Iran says it will never abandon its program, arguing it has the right to peaceful nuclear development as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The Israeli leader called Tuesday for a deal that would impose much tighter restrictions on Iran.
“The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal. A better deal that won’t give Iran an easy path to the bomb,” said Netanyahu, though he did not go into specifics.
The Israeli leader also wants tougher sanctions. In recent years, the U.S. and Europe have imposed stringent measures that have greatly reduced its oil exports. This has inflicted real pain, but has not forced Iran to give up its nuclear program.
Netanyahu’s critics say his proposals won’t work and leave military force as the only real alternative. Israel has floated this possibility, but there’s a widespread belief that an Israeli strike could impose only limited, short-term damage.
“A military attack could set back Iran’s nuclear program. But such a setback would probably only be temporary, and the use of force could trigger an Iranian decision to go for nuclear weapons as soon as possible,” writes Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official who worked on nuclear issues and is now at the Brookings Institution.
Relations With The U.S.: For the first time in years, Israel became a partisan issue in Washington. Netanyahu has always been a polarizing figure at home, and he assumed that role in Washington. He won repeated standing ovations from Republicans — and some Democrats — in Congress, while about 50 Democrats boycotted the speech.
Netanyahu seems to relish his role as a combative figure and says the gravity of the Iranian nuclear issues makes it necessary for him to speak out. And for all the current controversy, the tight U.S.-Israeli relationship has endured occasional policy differences and personality clashes.
The larger question is whether this episode hints at broader disagreements.
What if Israel carries out a military strike against Iran, with all the potential consequences, and the U.S. refuses to join in or back such an Israeli action?
When Israel battled Hamas in the Gaza Strip last summer, the U.S. supported Israel but was unusually blunt in its criticism of Israel’s bombing campaign that killed hundreds of civilians.
Netanyahu’s actions also drew criticism in Israel, where some feel he has harmed Israel’s most important relationship.
Last week, some 180 former Israeli military officers, called the Commanders for Israel’s Security, denounced Netanyahu’s decision to go through with the Washington speech, including one of his former commanders, Maj. Gen. Amiran Levin.
“I taught Bibi (Netanyahu) how to navigate and to reach the target, and this time I’m sorry to say: ‘Bibi, you’re making a navigation error. The target is in Tehran, not in Washington,'” Levin said. “[Instead] of working hand-in-hand with the president … you go there and poke a finger in his eyes.”