By Salma Khamis
The Internet was positively ablaze all two weeks ago following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the United States Congress. Analysts from across the political spectrum produced extensive literature on the potential geopolitical implications of Bibi’s controversial speech. What does it mean for the Israeli elections? What does it mean for Obama? What does it mean for the Republicans? What does it mean for Iran? Hell, what does it mean for everyone else in between?
To clarify, this article will not attempt to posit more speculative theories on whether or not the speech will have any consequences on its vested stakeholders, nor will it analyze the potential magnitude of said consequences. Instead, I argue that our knowledge of Geneva negotiations is in and of itself sufficient to determine the long-term effects of Bibi’s speech: minimal.
First of all, as highlighted by a fellow USMEYN colleague, the presumed surprise and shock-factor value of the speech was grossly exaggerated by attendees and observers alike. By committing to address the United States’ Congress, despite Obama’s lack of approval (and attendance), Netanyahu had already signaled the orientation of his remarks. Observing American politicians’ and news outlets’ outcry makes me wonder what they had expected from Bibi? A congratulatory spiel on the strides in global diplomacy made by the United States and Iran as they move ever closer to a deal on nuclear proliferation? Or, better, a renouncement of the extent to which he has thus far portrayed the threat of “militant Islam” on Israeli and global security? Lo and behold, the Israeli Prime Minister did not choose the U.S. House of Representatives as the site from which to declare the conversion of his entire ideological and electoral platform, merely a few weeks before his voters back home head to the ballot!
Setting those fanciful expectations aside, allow me to indulge in a healthy dose of realpolitik. Israel’s stance on an American-Iranian nuclear deal has not exactly been the world’s best-kept secret. Since the 2002 discovery of Iranian nuclear facilities, Israel has been a fervent advocate for total Iranian disarmament. Granted, the provocative nature of Iran’s conservative wing didn’t render Israel’s fears of a nuclear-armed Iran entirely unsubstantiated. However, they must be viewed through the trajectory of an ever-changing geopolitical landscape and, as such, its relevant priorities.
On the one hand, the global allegiances governing the Syrian conflict have been very clearly defined, pitting some of Israel’s neighbors against its officially declared stance on Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On the other hand, the advent of European recognition of the Palestinian state, coupled with the increasing number of anti-Israeli human rights allegations, displays an unprecedented implicit strengthening of the mainstream Palestinian cause. Combine all of that with the developments unfolding in Iraq with the Islamic State, as well as the previously unobserved definitive positioning of several Gulf monarchies, and Israel’s amplification of its age-old victim rhetoric comes as no surprise.
Similarly unsurprising is the fact that a large portion of said Israeli victim rhetoric finds its roots within a highly religious trajectory amplifying historical Jewish persecution. It is within this trajectory that we can place the undeniably influential Jewish American lobby and its role in determining American foreign policy as it pertains to the Middle East. However, having pitted himself against the U.S. President, Netanyahu forced Jewish members of Congress to choose between two opposing allegiances: the Jewish lobby and the Democratic Party (only one Jewish congressman is a Republican). As a result, six out of the thirty Jewish members of Congress announced their boycott of the speech, somewhat detracting from the religious ground upon which the aforementioned victim rhetoric once stood.
The tactical nature of Democratic/Republican attendance insinuates that Bibi’s address was a political issue. As such, it should be considered as one feature within the grander scheme of a series of complex geopolitical circumstances, as opposed to yet another event within the trajectory of traditional allegiances governing the Arab-Israeli conflict to this day.
That said, how does this victim rhetoric (so clearly demonstrated in the speech) have the potential to affect ongoing Geneva negotiations? First of all, both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif signaled clearly to a curious international media that they were both indeed still “working away, productively.” These statements, issued directly following the Bibi speech, affirm both Kerry and Zarif’s adamant assertions of continued negotiation despite Israeli criticism. This proves at least an outward dismissal of any attempts to derail progress towards a final US-Iran nuclear deal.
In addition, the language that emerged out of the Oval Office afterwards complimented these sentiments. President Obama reportedly said that Netanyahu “didn’t offer any viable alternatives” to hinder Iranian nuclear armament. Regardless of whether or not Netanyahu is even invested in offering alternate solutions to the threat he perceives a nuclear-armed Iran to pose, having offered none means little will change in the discussions unfolding in Geneva.
It is interesting to note, however, the way in which the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech was received in Iran. While much of Iran’s media seemed to offer similar coverage to its American counterpart on the left (focusing on the White House’s disapproval and the boycott and/or disappointment of key members of Congress), an intriguing alternate conspiracy-laden storyline infiltrated the country’s conservative establishment. This storyline reads as such: the U.S. and Israel are engaging in a conspiracy whereby, by presenting Israeli rejection of the Geneva negotiations, they are forcing Iran to follow through with a deal (that is perceived to be essentially harmful to the Iranians) out of Iran’s conventional commitment to anti-Israeli foreign policy. Granted, this is not the official position of neither the Iranian government nor the Supreme Leader, but stands to represent grievances regarding the Geneva talks on the Iranian right, similar to those voiced by the Republican Party in the United States.
Thus a new question emerges: can the conservative factions on either side of the negotiating table harness enough leverage to truly influence the talking points governing their respective representatives in Geneva? Has Bibi contributed to an observable increase of this leverage? As of today, little can be said of decreasing either American or Iranian incentive to continue working towards a deal. Perhaps Netanyahu did provide both the Republicans and the hardline Iranian conservatives the rhetorical ammunition with which to synthesize their disapproval of the actions undertaken by their respective foreign ministers. However, I struggle to see the prospect of this ammunition having any lasting effect on the tangible foreign policy concerns on either side.
That isn’t to say that the aesthetic of a spirited Netanyahu practically dictating an alternate American foreign policy to a standing ovation of democratically elected US representatives won’t do him well in today’s elections. Arguably, that doesn’t stray too far from the purpose of the speech in the first place.