Queen Esther and Netanyahu

Queen Esther, the heroine of the Biblical story of Purim when the Jewish people was saved from annihilation at the hands of the Persian villain, got a thunderous standing ovation when her name was mentioned in the Halls of Congress on March 3, 2015. She would have been delighted by the speech made there by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke of the urgency of dealing effectively with the Iranian threat to annihilate his country

Less delighted than Esther was Democratic Minority Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, who confessed she was near tears throughout the speech of the prime minister, whom she thought insulted the intelligence of the United States. Her dismay, and disrespect for the speaker, was publicly illustrated by her behavior of contrived petulance, angry gestures, lack of attention, and facial expressions betraying her disrespect for Netanyahu who was making a convincing and mesmerizing speech.

That disrespect for Netanyahu personally and by inference, for the State of Israel, was unfortunately also illustrated by the fifty Democrat members of the House and eight Democrat members of the Senate who boycotted the speech, perhaps for fear their sensibilities might be offended or intelligence might be insulted. The disrespect was compounded by the remark of President Barack Obama, who refused to listen to the speech of an allied leader but had “a chance to look at the transcript”, that “As far as I can tell there was nothing new.” As Winston Churchill might have said: some intelligent dialogue; some concern for the sober analysis of the leader of the only democratic country in the Middle East.

Pelosi was saddened by Netanyahu’s “condescension towards our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran.” No one doubts the extent of her knowledge, yet it would have expanded if she had read comments by individuals who may be even more familiar with Middle East affairs.

One comment came in a column in the Saudi Arabian daily Al-Jazirah on March 2, 2015 written by Ahmad al-Faraj. The Saudi Arabian columnist said that Netanyahu was right to insist on addressing Congress about the nuclear deal despite the Obama administration’s “anger and fury.” The prime minister was justified in his campaign against the proposed nuclear deal with Iran, and that was his effort to prevent the signing of the agreement was in the interest of the Gulf States.

The editor of Al Arabiya English, Faisal J. Abbas, went even further. He asked President Obama to take notes from Netanyahu on the extent of the Iranian threat. The prime minister, he believed, did get it right, at least when it came to Iran. Netanyahu was accurate about the danger of Iran not just to Israel but also to the other U.S. allies in the region. In a very caustic remark Abbas said, “the only stakeholder” who seems not to realize the danger of the situation is President Obama.

The Saudi Arabians, in approving both the appropriateness and the content of Netanyahu’s speech, maintained that the real threat in the situation was not just Iran’s nuclear ambitions but its expansionist approach and state-sponsored ongoing terrorist activities.  

The Saudi Arabians also rebuked implicitly the conduct of Obama, Vice-President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the Congressional Democrats who boycotted the speech. They commented on the unprecedented tension between the Obama administration and Netanyahu, and on the level of that tension as expressed by National Security Advisor Susan Rice that Netanyahu’s conduct was unacceptable and even destructive.

Netanyahu’s speech was in fact compelling, rationally argued, and deserves a more considerable response than that of President Obama’s casual reference that nothing new was said. A number of important things were said. One was that the ongoing negotiations with Iran were leaving intact a large Iranian nuclear infrastructure. The other was that a time limit was to exist on the sanctions on Iran.

The technical issues about the limits and control of Iran’s ambition to achieve nuclear weapons, on the basis of the number and capacity of centrifuges and the number of inspections, are difficult and there are legitimate differences about these issues, but they must be put in the context of Iranian actions and objectives. On the very day of Netanyahu’s speech, the Iranian negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, rejected the position that Iran freeze its sensitive nuclear activities for at least ten years. This, he considered, was an excessive and illegal demand.

On the technical issue, Netanyahu made a strong maximalist case for the elimination of all enrichment plants and reactors that could be used to make a bomb. Equally compelling, Netanyahu also pointed out the real excessive and illegal Iranian demands: aggression in the Middle East and ambition to exercise hegemony in the region; support for terrorism throughout the Middle East; and annihilation of the State of Israel.

The real nature of Iran cannot be misunderstood. At the same time that Netanyahu was speaking, the Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani was active in directing Shia militias in the fight against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Tikrit, Iraq.

That real nature of Iran was made unmistakably clear by a new United Nations report which indicated that Iran had executed more than 500 people in 2014 without any real trial. After being tortured, the victims were murdered for “corruption on earth,” and for “enmity against God.”

United States policy should be clear. Sanctions on Iran should not be lifted until it gives up its aggressive actions. The Obama Team is familiar with the usefulness and benefits of sanctions. On the same day as the speech in Congress, Obama was having a conference call with European leaders to discuss the maintenance and possible increase of sanctions against Russia because of its activities towards Ukraine. Russia was warned that the sanctions would be increased if there were more violations of the ceasefire agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

Congressional leaders, if not the U.S. administration, have seen the parallel with Iran and acted in two ways. They are now proposing legislation that would provide for Congressional assent to a nuclear deal with Iran. In addition, additional sanctions would be proposed on Iran if Congress felt the deal was unsatisfactory.

Irrespective of personal relations between the political leaders, and the animus resulting from a crisis that escalated from a minor issue of protocol, Netanyahu’s speech must be considered seriously by the U.S. administration. For most members of Congress the Israeli leader convincingly argued that the worst outcome of the present negotiations between the U.S. and Iran is a bad deal. The U.S. Congress must ensure that this does not come about.