After touchdown at Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed that he had offered a practical alternative to the “bad deal” being negotiated with Iran. But US President Barack Obama wasn’t off the mark when he described his address to the US Congress on Tuesday as “nothing new”.
Yet the speech — made after Netanyahu was invited by the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, without informing the White House — has cast a shadow over negotiations under way in Switzerland on an outline nuclear deal between Tehran and the P5+1 before the March-end deadline. If Congress refuses to lift the sanctions on Iran, as a final deal would require, Netanyahu may have to ironically share the blame for the failure to curtail Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. The debate has narrowed to the “break out” time the international community would need to respond if Iran were to renege on the deal. The US wants at least a one-year window but it will not be easy to coordinate a plan of action in advance. Netanyahu could have offered some practical advice on the matter.
The Middle East has changed since Netanyahu first raised the alarm over a nuclear Iran in 1996. Despite Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as suspicions about its nuclear programme, the threat posed by the Islamic State to regional stability made an outreach necessary. This geopolitical imperative underlies Obama’s push for the deal. In the end, Netanyahu cannot stop a deal if one is possible. Yet, his speech exposed the still unbridgeable political divide in the US. Israel has always enjoyed bipartisan support. But the fact that several senior Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, refused to be part of Netanyahu’s audience could be a warning about the limits of consensus.