Netanyahu and the Devil

There is the delivery, and then there is the content. With his 41-minute speech before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu was a disgrace on both counts.

Let’s start with the delivery. The second foreign leader to have had the opportunity to speak three times before this prestigious forum, the Israeli prime minister used it to insult the president of the United States and to attempt to sabotage a decade of international efforts to come to a nuclear agreement with Iran.

This goes beyond chutzpah, that Yiddish word that refers to audacity, nerve, and even impudence. Instead we can qualify it as clumsiness, tactlessness and a dreadful condescension.

Now for the content. Two weeks away from a legislative election where the outcome is less sure than it seemed at the start of the election campaign, the Israeli leader has brandished Iran as a specter, the root of all evil, and the cause of the next annihilation of the Jewish state.

It is not the first time that this leader of the Israeli right has used the Iranian threat as an instrument for his own electoral ends. I remember attending an assembly of his party, Likud, in Jerusalem, a few days before the February 2009 elections. There was a packed room, impassioned speeches pointing the finger at Tehran and announcing the imminent coming of the Iranian atomic bomb.

In fact, this old-hand Israeli politician has spent the last 20 years predicting that the Iranians will have the bomb “in three to five years.” In September 2012, he backed up his words with a graph showing that Iran’s ultimate weapon was already 70 percent built – an estimation that was just as quickly denied by the Israeli secret services.

This doesn’t mean that Iran does not entertain the idea of equipping itself with a nuclear weapon, but it shows that Benjamin Netanyahu is exaggerating this threat and using it to his own political ends. And along the way, he has no qualms about stretching the truth.

“The Iranian regime is as radical as ever,” the Israeli leader claimed in front of Washington’s elected representatives. False. In June 2013, the Iranians brought Hassan Rouhani to power, a president who, on the Iranian scale, is a moderate, open to dialogue and negotiations, and anxious to revive his country’s economy, which has been choked by sanctions, in exchange for a compromise on the nuclear program.

The Iranian president’s influence is limited by the theocratic power held by the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, reminds Hanieh Ziaei, Iran specialist at the University of Quebec, Montreal. Nevertheless, President Rouhani has clearly broken away from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime. “And the very fact that he accepted to sit down and negotiate is a gesture of moderation,” according to Ziaei.

Iran is not a monolithic country, and its political class is divided. On the one side, there’s a reformer president who wants to put an end to sanctions and open his country up to foreign investment. On the other side, there is a more conservative current, which is wary of the West and which can now use Netanyahu’s speech to discredit the nuclear negotiations and undermine the negotiation efforts.

“It’s a completely counterproductive speech,” sums up Ziaei.

The nuclear negotiations are entering their final round. The agreement should be reached by March 31. It’s at this moment that Benjamin Netanyahu chooses to try to torpedo them, speculating about a president who is not ideal but who, nevertheless, represents the voice of moderation. This strategy is somewhat reminiscent of the Israeli right’s attitude in its relations with the Palestinians …

Therefore, there is a draft agreement on the table. It’s not perfect, nor is it complete, and its details are not all known, but now it is possible. What we know is that in exchange for lifting sanctions, Iran would agree to significantly reduce its uranium enrichment capabilities for the next decade.

The Iranians are perhaps not acting completely in good faith, but they have good reasons, above all, economic ones, to want to normalize their relations with the West.

The Iranian leaders are not raging lunatics, but rather politicians who have rational objectives to achieve with their citizens, but also with the different factions that are present within their country.

By presenting Iran as an incarnation of evil, by placing it on an equal footing with the barbaric, bloodthirsty Islamic State movement, Benjamin Netanyahu demonizes this country, without offering the least solution for change.

And this is the main weakness of his theatrical presentation this week. Because, in the end, what is the alternative? Between an imperfect agreement and no agreement at all, does Netanyahu have a proposition on the table? Nothing, nada. In terms of solutions, his speech came close to a gaping void. From the great, great Netanyahu.

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