Oh, to be in Geneva right now, facing the Iranians across a long polished table in a quiet hotel room– because everywhere else the debates over their nuclear ambitions are raging, and the anxiety, accusations and intrigue are exasperating. Never have so many weighed in on so much while knowing so little.
After a dramatic lead-up worthy of a political thriller, or at least a reality show, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will finally step in front of Congress on March 3 and do his best to convince the House of Representatives, the Senate and the American people that the deal President Barack Obama is currently negotiating with Iran over its nuclear development will be a bad one.
The negotiators in Geneva, including Secretary of State John Kerry, are telling the press that productive talks may lead to a historic agreement by their self-imposed March 31 deadline. They won’t say what the particulars of the agreements are, only that Bibi’s criticisms of them are inaccurate.
We are all bystanders to this political showdown, a tense two-hander all but guaranteed to produce a winner and a loser.
Will Bibi pull off a speech of such eloquence, power and insight that he will win over the majority of Americans? Enough even to convince Democrats to snub Obama and support Bibi’s point of view?
Or will his speech be met by an equal and opposite reaction from the Obama administration, which even now could well be developing plans to undercut the Israeli prime minister with facts they’ve withheld to render his objections impotent?
Will Bibi’s Hail Moses enable him to inch in front of his rivals in the Israeli elections? Or will a bad showing here seal his doom back home?
Will Americans perceive Bibi as forcing the president out of a deal and into a military conflict on Israel’s behalf?
Or will they come to thank this man who rode in from out of town for saving them from an agreement that could lead to a nuclear Iran and a Shiite/Sunni nuclear arms race?
Even though I think Bibi made a huge mistake by going behind the president’s back in speaking to Congress — he could have given the same speech on the same trip to AIPAC without the blowback — my mind remains wide open to his arguments, as well as to those of Obama and the negotiators.
It seems to me that’s only honest position: We don’t know the substance of the deal, or Bibi’s specific disagreement, or something else — the alternatives.
Because lost amid the grogger-like chorus of dissent is the sound of a better idea.
We know there are some really bad ones still kicking around. The people who brought us the Iraq war have for years been pushing for a military strike against Iran, though there’s barely a credible military or intelligence expert in America or Israel who thinks that’s the best possible course.
As for the argument that military threats and tougher sanctions alone will convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, it’s easy to make the case that the effect has been and will be the exact opposite. If you’re constantly being threatened by a far superior power, you can be sure those threats lose their power the second you get the N-bomb. Nobody’s talking about invading North Korea these days.
There’s another group, especially within the Jewish community, that decries any concessions to Iran as capitulation. But ever since the Bush administration allowed Iran to spring forward with its nuclear program while we were busy invading Iraq and Afghanistan, the non-nuclear ship sailed. Negotiations will never bring back the shah, though anything short of that elicits cries of “Munich!” from too many otherwise-smart people. Negotiations mean carrots, not just sticks.
Finally, there is the “No deal is better than a bad deal” mantra. That’s something we’ve also tried in the past, only to discover that there’s no such thing as the status quo in Tehran. When we walk away, they build.
So, let’s put aside these far worse or unrealistic alternatives. The question we should ask after Bibi speaks and Obama or his people respond is this: Is there any possible deal that can bridge American and Israeli differences? Or, to put it another way, is there a simple cure for what ails Bibi?
The answer, I think, is one word: verification.
Beyond all the posturing and speechifying, the bottom line is this: Israel doesn’t trust Iran, and it shouldn’t. That’s only partly because Iran, like enemies in the past, has threatened to destroy Israel. It’s also because Israel knows well how countries can lie, deceive and connive their way to a bomb — because back in the 1960s, Israel did just that.
So the best alternative to a bad deal, or no deal, is a deal that has stringent, intrusive and long-lasting inspections of all nuclear facilities. As Ambassador Dennis Ross has pointed out, the verification regime has to be accompanied by clear consequences, spelled out in advance, if Iran breaches any part of the agreement.
Such a deal, Ross wrote in the Washington Post, “just might also bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu.”
That’s what I’ll be looking for as the drama unfolds in the coming weeks — a way short of bombing to thwart Iran — and bridge the gap.