What will history tell us of Netanyahu’s speech?

March 4, 2015

On May 26, 1967, President Lyndon Johnson met with Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban to discuss a great tension in the Middle East. Johnson repeated America’s warnings against an Israeli attack on Egypt. Eban restated Israel’s position: The international community would have to act quickly to prevent an attack. We now know that an attack was imminent. I was reminded of this meeting when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke the most chilling sentence in his long and masterful March 3 speech to the U.S. Congress: “Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”

Two different versions of the Johnson-Eban conversation are in the archives, one by the Israeli note taker, Ambassador Avraham Herman, and the other by the assistant to the secretary of state, Joseph Sisco. Scholars have agreed that the Israeli version of the meeting is the more reliable. It is more detailed and contains more specific language.

“Do you” — the United States — “have the will and determination” to open the closed Straits of Tiran to shipping? Foreign Minister Eban asked. Egypt had closed the straits, and the U.S. was trying to convince Israel to allow more time for diplomacy or for international action before it acted unilaterally. President Johnson answered — his answer appears only in the Israeli version of the conversation — with the statement: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward, and we’re going to try.” Johnson also said — according to the Israeli version — that if the U.S. does not succeed in gathering “a group” of countries to do this together, then the U.S. will do it “on our own.”

The Americans emerged from the meeting with mixed feelings. Johnson was not sure whether Eban had been convinced by his pledge for patience. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was more positive: He believed that the danger of imminent Israeli action had been well handled. The Israelis emerged from the meeting encouraged. They thought that a door for an Israeli action had been opened. And it did not take long for Israel to act.

Even when relations are intimate, not all meetings look the same to all participants, and not all readings of a situation are alike. Even when Israel is less paranoid about the motivations and the goals of a U.S. administration, even when the U.S. feels that Israel’s case is relatively strong — not all assessments of the right path forward are identical. But when the U.S. and Israel do not have close relations at the top level, when both sides are paranoid about the intentions of their ally, when each side feels that the other side’s main goal is to disrupt the other’s strategy, when instead of intimate discussions the parties resort to public demonstration of annoyance — there is no way for the U.S. and Israel to agree. 

And, indeed, the countries disagree. Manners aside, politicization aside, personal dislikes aside, insults aside, Israel does not accept an agreement that the Obama administration seems to want. Moreover, Israel — the Prime Minister of Israel — believes that the U.S. administration is ready to accept a deal that would put Israel at great risk. Had Netanyahu been more subtle in his resistance to President Barack Obama, had he asked nicely before coming to speak, had he postponed his speech until after Election Day, would that really make a difference when the two countries have such a fundamental disagreement?

If history judges Netanyahu harshly on Iran, it will not be because of the speech he gave March 3. More likely, he will be judged harshly for substituting action — that is, military action when he had a chance — with words. 

Earlier this week, former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Benny Gantz retold on television the story of blunting Netanyahu’s intention to take action. Gantz and his friends at the top echelons of Israel’s defense establishment opposed military action. In Gantz’s tale, these officers saved Israel from an irresponsible prime minister. And maybe they did. But history has funny ways of judging meetings, decisions and outcomes. Johnson failed to convince Eban and Israel’s government not to act. Israel went to war — the Six-Day War — and changed the Middle East. Obama succeeded in taming Israel’s behavior on Iran by putting pressure on Netanyahu not to launch an attack close to the 2012 American presidential election. Obama might now reach an agreement on Iran, and also change the Middle East forever.

Much anger was wasted on Netanyahu’s decision to speak, but he deserved at least as much compassion as he deserves anger. More than a statement of belligerence, the speech was a demonstration of desperation. He pleaded with the American people to pressure the administration to replace a “bad deal” with a “better deal.” He pleaded with it to look at a clear-cut case: Why concede when Iran doesn’t change its policies? Why concede when Iran wouldn’t demonstrate its good intentions first? 

Much anger was wasted on Netanyahu’s decision to speak, but he deserved at least as much compassion as he deserves anger.

Netanyahu demonstrated that he can convincingly lay out a case against the menace of Iran, that he can convincingly make a case against the agreement that is taking shape. The Obama administration thus far has not made a case that is nearly as convincing to support its decision: It says a better deal is unrealistic but also that no deal is better than a bad deal. It says Netanyahu presents no viable alternative, but in fact he did: Sanctions and more pressure. It says Netanyahu doesn’t offer anything “new” — that is true, but why the need for new if the old was not sufficiently tested, as Netanyahu argues? 

The prime minister has a very good case, but evidently not convincing enough. He failed to convince his military men to take military action and decided not to impose his will on them. He then failed to sway Obama from the folly of signing an agreement with Iran that — many experts agree — is going to open a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world. And on March 3, he turned to a measure of last resort — an attempt to convince Congress to stop Obama. Very likely, this will mark a third failure. No one will be able to say that Netanyahu did not give it a try, that he was not using his best tool at his disposal —words — to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Much like Obama, with whom Netanyahu went to battle this week, the prime minister is a man of words. He believes in the power of words to change realities. He believes in his ability as a speaker to change realities. Obama received a Nobel Peace Prize for no more than saying the right words. Netanyahu had to make do with standing ovations — a Nobel is not forthcoming. About a week ago, Netanyahu said in a closed conversation that “in Congress, unlike the Knesset, people actually sit and listen when a visitor speaks.” 

Netanyahu was cheered by everybody as he spoke about the viciousness of Iran, but cheered by fewer when he started speaking about the folly of an administration that is rushing to complete a bad deal — that is, if Iran would be generous enough to accept the lavish terms offered. Netanyahu, indeed, made a convincing case that Iran is dangerous, and he made a strong case that the deal is not good enough. But his appreciation of Congress might be too generous. That people listen does not mean they intend to act. That they hear a convincing case does not mean they will risk political careers to do the right thing.

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