Rarely has there been a political speech so wrapped up in anticipation, controversy, and rhetoric. On Tuesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress at the invitation of Speaker John Boehner. Expected to focus on the impending nuclear deal between the United States and Iran, the speech could go down in history as one of the most important of Netanyahu’s career.
There is more than just Iranian nuclear capabilities at stake. Netanyahu is only two weeks away from a national election, a fact that was central to Obama’s denouncement of the speech. The president insisted that it would be improper for him to meet with the prime minister so close to the election. Obama’s critics, however, believe he is merely using the election as a convenient excuse.
Unless Netanyahu delivers something surprising, the context of the speech is at least as important as the content. The prime minister has made no secret of where he stands on a nuclear Iran. Along with many Israelis and American conservatives, he believes it would be a drastic mistake to place any trust in an Islamic regime that has been linked to terrorist funding, Holocaust denial, and public statements violently denouncing Israel.
Netanyahu’s detractors – and even some supporters – question the wisdom of damaging ties with Democrats and the Obama administration. While Obama has been rightly criticized at home for damaging that relationship himself, Netanyahu has much more to lose than the U.S. If left stranded in a hostile Middle East, even Israel’s powerful arsenal would not be enough to fend off multiple attacks. It’s unlikely that Obama would stand by and watch our sole democratic ally in the region fall to Muslims, but this is a president who has done a lot of unlikely things in his six years.
Netanyahu’s position on Iran is consistent and clear. While the Obama administration works to lift sanctions and allow for a supervised nuclear program, Netanyahu insists that the only deal that ensures Israel’s safety is one that demands a non-nuclear Iran. He is in favor of strengthening sanctions until the Islamic Republic has no choice but to give in. Secretary of State John Kerry has dismissed such an ultimatum as impossible.
At the annual AIPAC policy conference, Netanyahu sought to downplay the effect his speech will have on U.S.-Israeli relations. After listing numerous instances in which Israel defied the wishes of the United States, he said, “Despite occasional disagreements, the friendship between America and Israel grew stronger and stronger, decade after decade. And our friendship will weather the current disagreements as well to grow even stronger in the future.”
Obama, Kerry, and other administration officials have hinted that they may be drawing near to a signed accord with Iran. Details on the ultimate agreement are scarce, but The New York Times has reported that it may limit Iran’s ability to enrich uranium for at least ten years. After proving themselves, however, Iran may be allowed to build back to its current levels, only a couple of months away from being bomb-capable.
Intriguing though Netanyahu’s speech may be from a political perspective, underneath the sensationalism lies important questions about a nuclear Iran. The administration insists their deal, while imperfect, is the only one possible. But while Obama deserves credit for pursuing diplomacy, bowing to the demands of a dangerous theocracy could jeopardize millions of lives. Peace is a noble goal, but it must be achieved through strength, not submission. I pray that’s not a lesson we have to learn the hard way.