Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Netanyahu's Speech to Congress

Yesterday, March 3, 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress. It was quite the spectacle.  He received 21 standing ovations from a fawning Republican Congress.  59 Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, did not attend the speech. No Republicans skipped it (it appears).  In fact, Republicans were clamoring all over themselves to score tickets from boycotting Democrats like this was the NCAA final fours. By my math this left 301 Republicans and just 174 Democrats in attendance.

Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader was reportedly visibly upset throughout the speech and called it "insulting to the intelligence of the United States." That is undoubtedly true. But then noone has gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the U.S. Congress recently.  This, after all, is the Congress where they toss snow-balls in the middle of winter to prove that global warming is a hoax.

Netanyahu has famously boasted that "America is a thing you can move very easily." Watching this Republican Congress react to his speech, who can say he is wrong?

Netanyahu seems to have had two purposes in mind in making this speech: 1) torpedo a potential nuclear arms control deal between Iran and the P5 +1 (U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany), and 2) score points for his reelection campaign--elections are in two weeks.

On the election front, the 21 standing ovations he garnered from this Republican Congress has helped  him substantially. Likud and the Republican Congress, two war mongering peas in a pod.

On the international discussions for a nuclear deal with Iran, here is Noam Sheizaf, who is spot on as usual:
As far as the international debate on the deal with Iran goes, Bibi’s positions were absurd. Not only did he provide zero alternatives to the deal he is seeking to prevent, he actually asked his biggest ally [that's us] to walk out of negotiations with Iran, tighten sanctions and wait for regime change. That is not only highly impractical (even if the U.S. is convinced to adopt Netanyahu’s proposed policy, there is little chance Russia or China will do the same), but most chances are that Iran would only intensify its enrichment efforts. In Netanyahu’s playbook, this leads to the military option. Since very few people in the U.S. are anxious to go to war with Iran, Netanyahu actually made selling the deal easier, as the Washington Post was quick to point out. If even Bibi doesn’t have an alternative strategy to negotiations, the logical conclusion would be to go ahead with the deal. After all, one could always end up going to war if Iran breaks its obligations, and there is no need to do that right now.
If you want to know what a statesman should sound like, listen to a stateswoman, namely Susan Rice's speech to AIPAC, on Monday, March 2, 2015.  She was sent to explain why a deal with Iran is important to pursue, and why torpedoing these efforts is not helpful.

Rice made clear that the United States shares the goal of keeping Iran a nuclear weapons free zone.  This is a matter of national interest for the U.S., she said, not just because it would be a threat to Israel, but because it would lead to a regional arms race and potentially to an even more belligerent Iran.

By engaging with Iran, she reported, the P5 + 1 international powers have succeeded in halting Iran's nuclear weapons program and succeeded in getting Iran to give up its most highly enriched Uranium, stopped the installation of additional centrifuges, and stopped construction of the plutonium reactor at Arak. Whereas before this engagement, international inspectors had access to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities every few weeks, at best, today, the UN's inspectors have daily access to Iran's nuclear facilities.

Any deal to be accepted will have to prevent Iran from proceeding towards nuclear weapons for at least 10 years, she said.  As we know, a lot can change in 10 years, and at the expiration of that period, the international community will continue to have all options available to it, including sanctions, and (as a last resort) the use of force.

If you listen to Netanyahu and are tempted to think he makes any sense, listen to Rice.

Consider also that Israel is a nuclear power, and has been since 1967. Estimates are that Israel has approximately 100 to 200 nuclear war heads and long range missiles to deliver these to all parts of Iran. Israel has satellites in space, and its nuclear arsenal is well protected and built to survive a first strike by another power.  Israel can launch nuclear missiles from submarines. Israel has a substantial military superiority over its neighbors, including Iran. As Netanyahu said, Israel can take care of itself just fine--and frankly that would be true even if Iran were successful at manufacturing nuclear weapons along the lines that North Korea has done.

Netanyahu has been crying wolf about Iran and its nuclear intentions since 1992.  He will continue to do so as long as it gets him elected.

The fact is, Iran is not an existential threat to Israel and is not about to be anytime soon. Here is James Fallows in the Atlantic:
Is there an existential threat from nuclear weapons? Of course there is.Throughout my Cold War childhood, families in the United States and the Soviet Union were constantly reminded of the danger that we could all be incinerated in a second. My parents sanely refused to build a fallout shelter, but many neighbors gave in to the fears. On the Beach and Fail-Safe were hugely popular novels because of exactly this danger. Soon after the first use of atomic weapons, Albert Einstein wrote in The Atlantic about the danger to all of humanity. Enough nuclear warheads remain to kill everyone on Earth many times over. I support the Global Zero drive to eliminate them.

Is nuclear proliferation a problem, wherever it occurs? Of course, yes as well. Each new nuclear power makes the emergence of further powers more likely. This domino effect on other Middle Eastern countries is a very strong reason to oppose Iran's getting a bomb.

Is there a state that faces a specific existential threat right now? Yes again. That state is South Korea. South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own, though the U.S. has extended its "nuclear umbrella." Its immediate neighbor, North Korea, does have nukes, which it tested and developed while the U.S. was distracted in Iraq. North Korea’s leaders are peculiar, to put it mildly, and have repeatedly promised / threatened to destroy South Korea in a "sea of fire" in rhetoric as blood-curdling as any anti-Israel rant from Iran. South Korea's population center is practically on the border with the North, rather than several time zones away as with Iran relative to Israel.  It would be better for everyone except North Korea if it had no nukes, but the South Korean president was not invited to address Congress during the GW Bush years to demand tougher action against North Korea.

Is Israel's situation comparable to that on the Korean peninsula—or, to use the more familiar parallel, to that of European Jews menaced by Hitler in 1938? It most emphatically is not, if you pay any attention to the underlying facts. The most obvious difference is that Israel is the incumbent (if unacknowledged) nuclear power in the region, with the universally understood ability to annihilate any attacker in a retaliatory raid. The only similarity between this power balance and the predicament of European Jewry in 1938 is the anti-Semitism. In 1938 the Jews of Germany, Poland, France, and Russia were a stateless minority with no military force of their own to protect them and no foreign power (including the U.S.) willing to step in. In 2015 Israel is a powerful independent state, more heavily armed than any adversary. 
Think of this parallel: The full-tilt U.S. slave economy of the 1850s and the police-shooting abuses of 2015 have in common racist anti-black prejudice, but they are not the same situations. One was resolved only by cataclysmic war. The other is very serious but not the prelude to north-versus-south combat. The Iranian rhetoric of 2015 and the Nazi death machine of the Reich have in common anti-Semitic hate-mongering. But the differences between them are far more obvious than the similarities. 
And is the Iran of 2015 like the Germany of 1938? Oh, please. In 1938, Germany had the strongest military in the world, and the second-largest economy (behind only the United States). Its economy was bigger than France's and England's combined. Today's Iran, by contrast, doesn't even have the strongest military in its region, and its economy is not in the world's top 25.  Hitler's Germany was an expansionist force that would grow until it was crushed. Iran makes enormous trouble for the U.S. and others, but no one serious can be proposing that it must be crushed.I lay this out not imagining that it might change a single word in Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, nor the fervor of those who support him (and will soon tell me so). And of course Israel will decide for itself whether it feels "existentially" threatened. I am writing to an American audience that must assess our next steps and long-term goals toward Iran. When we call this situation "existential," we’re either saying something that is true for everyone—in the age of nuclear weapons all of humanity is at risk—or we’re making a specific observation that is far less applicable in Israel than in many other places, starting with South Korea. It's a slogan that has replaced thought.
The slogan Netanyahu coined, responding to Susan Rice, was that the alternative to a bad deal is not war, it's a better deal.  Well, Bibi, if you think you can strike a better deal with Iran than what the P5 + 1 are currently working on--go negotiate and get it done.  Otherwise, "Get the fuck off our lawn!"

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