WASHINGTON – "There is no sacred date for an agreement
between the world powers and Iran," a senior member of the prime minister's entourage said in a press briefing Sunday night, several minutes after landing in Washington.
He added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had chosen to address the two houses of Congress after estimating that the world powers and Iran were close to signing an agreement. He is familiar with the details of the agreement and has come to the conclusion that it's a bad agreement.
Nonetheless, according to the senior government official, Netanyahu never said that he was against the agreement. He is in favor of an agreement that will eliminate the nuclear capabilities being developed by the Iranians.
The senior official tried to downplay the sense that Netanyahu's arrival in Washington has created a full-on confrontation between the Israeli government and the White House.
"We have a lot of respect for President Barack Obama," he said. He added that Netanyahu had spoken to Secretary of State John Kerry on the telephone on Saturday.
Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu head to Washington. There may be no escape from concluding that the only sacred date we are talking about right now is March 17, Election Day in Israel (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom)
The official's comments were made after the prime minister's previous statements created the impression that he is coming to Washington to prevent an agreement to be signed on March 24. The current assumption is that the sides are unlikely to reach any agreement by that date, and that it's not an agreement but "a comprehensive and joint action plan" – in other words, a draft for continuing negotiations.
There may be no escape from concluding that the only sacred date we are talking about right now is March 17, Election Day in Israel.
Secretary of State Kerry is leaving for Geneva for another round of talks with Iran. Will an agreement be reached during this round? The American administration doesn't think so, and neither do the professional ranks in Israel. The gaps are too wide. It's true that in the past two weeks the American side has seen a number of encouraging signs, but Tehran must reach a real turning point – and that has yet to come.
There has been so much talk about the internal political games in Israel and the internal political games in Washington that we have forgotten about the third angle in this triangle – Iran. During the discussions with the Iranians, the Americans learned that there is an internal game taking place in Iran which is as fiery as the one taking place in the US.
In Iran, there are key elements that profit from the continuation of the sanctions: They are involved in smuggling and in other businesses related to the sanction economy. There are, as expected, conservative circles which fear that the agreement will expose Iran to foreign influences and threaten their rule. I doubt that the Iranian delegation has a mandate to reach an agreement.
The details of the negotiations are confidential. According to what we know right now, the gaps have to do with three main issues: First of all, the depth of the international supervision on the Iranian project; second, what restrictions which will be imposed on Iran after 10 or 15 years, when the agreement expires; and third, what will happen to Iran if it turns out that it is violating the agreement.
These issues are far from being marginal. President Obama knows that in order to guarantee that the Congress will not sabotage the agreement with Iran, he must at least convince the members of the Democratic minority in the two houses of Congress that he has reached a reasonable agreement, which is not a fig leaf concealing an American acceptance of a nuclear bomb. The key is in the Democrats' hands.
From this aspect, Netanyahu is coming to the right place: The state of mind in the Congress could affect the agreement's clauses, and maybe even its actual existence. The president can suspend the sanctions, but he can't cancel them without the Congress' support. Moreover, the Congress can impose new sanctions.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu made his move in a way and timing which destroy what he is allegedly seeking to fix. Instead of convincing the Democrats, he is pushing them into a loyalty test, the results of which are known in advance – and he is doing it two weeks before the elections in Israel.
Most Congress members don’t know much about foreign policy, but they do know about politics. Netanyahu will address them on Iran, but they will assume that it's not Iran which brought him over at this time, but rather his situation in the election polls.
There is evidence here and there that supports this cynical interpretation. On Monday, for example, Netanyahu will address the Jewish lobby in the AIPAC Policy Conference. I have been present in most speeches delivered by Israeli prime ministers in this conference. This time, Netanyahu will speak at 10 am local time, 5 pm Israel time. His real audience won't be his American listeners but his Israeli voters. He will bombard them with barrages of applause.
Not to mention his visit to the Western Wall
over the weekend.
The Prime Minister's Office has distributed a video showing his hand, the left hand, writing the draft for his speech. This documentation is aimed at creating a historical impression: As if the entire world will roll over at the stroke of a single speech in one place.
Netanyahu will deliver two speeches during his visit: One at the AIPAC conference and one at the Congress. It's not difficult to guess what he will say in them. Netanyahu will praise the United States excessively. He will laud the alliance between the two countries and promise that it's eternal. He may even praise the security aid America gave Israel during Obama's term as president.
And then he'll move on to Iran, quoting all of Iran's threats to destroy Israel and all the horrible things the Iranians have said about the Americans over the years. America saved the world twice, he may say, in World War I and in World War II. It's the only country that can save it a third time. He will present some kind of gimmick, something for the social media, and conclude his speech with a Bible verse.
The Republicans in the Congress will rise from their seats as one and applaud. Twenty times, 30 times, as much as he wants. Some of the Democrats will join them. What will happen next? They will all go to have lunch.
Robert Kagan is one of the outstanding writers in the US neoconservative camp, a camp which usually adopts the Israeli government's policy unconditionally and treats Netanyahu with fondness reserved for one of them. Over the weekend, Kagan wrote a harsh article in the Washington Post against Netanyahu's invitation to address the Congress. Not because of Iran, because of the precedent.
"Is anyone thinking about the future?" he asked. He mentioned a series of foreign leaders who disagreed with US presidents. Nonetheless, the Congress leaders avoided inviting them.
"Today, bringing a foreign leader before Congress to challenge a US president’s policies is unprecedented," he wrote. "After next week, it will be just another weapon in our bitter partisan struggle."