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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

White House-Netanyahu Rift Isn’t Over the Speech, but the Deal - Israeli leader seems almost certain to oppose deal the U.S. is negotiating with Iran on nuclear program

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Washington for a controversial speech to Congress next week, the immediate problem isn’t that he and the Obama administration disagree. At the moment, the problem actually is that they seem to agree on this: As things stand now, the Israeli leader seems almost certain to oppose and try to block the deal the U.S. is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

That is a change, and a significant one, from just a few months ago, when it seemed possible there could be a negotiated deal that both Mr. Netanyahu and President Barack Obama could embrace, if not exactly love. This change is why Mr. Netanyahu thinks it’s worth undermining his entire relationship with an American president by making a speech the White House didn’t know about and fumed about once it became known. And it’s why the White House has taken on Mr. Netanyahu so directly.

In short, the real sticking point isn’t the speech; the sticking point is the deal.

All of which raises a broader question: Does it have to be this way, or is there still hope of closing the rift? Despite all the tension, the possibility of common ground may not have disappeared entirely.

But first consider the immediate situation in Washington, where the controversy in coming days will be more about a speech rather than the substance of the Iran question. By now, the saga is well known. Republican House Speaker John Boehner went around the Democratic White House to invite Mr. Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress about the threat from Iran. The speech will come two weeks before Mr. Netanyahu is running for a new term at home, and three weeks before the deadline for the talks the U.S. and five other world powers are holding with Iran over a possible deal to curb its nuclear program.

The White House was miffed. Very. But not, as is commonly assumed, simply because the speech represented a breach of diplomatic protocol, in which world leaders deal with each other rather than through their countries’ respective opposition parties.

The deeper cause for concern within the administration was a feeling that the speech means Mr. Netanyahu has concluded that there is no version of the deal currently being negotiated with Iran that he can endorse—and that he is embarked on a strategy of using his strong connections with Republicans in Congress to find a way to use the legislative branch to block an agreement negotiated by the executive branch.

“He’s advocating against any deal. That’s just not diplomacy,” a senior administration official said. “And he’s not putting forward an alternative deal.”

Little that Mr. Netanyahu has done in recent weeks suggests otherwise. He said this week that it appears the “world powers” negotiating with Iran “have given up” on their commitment to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

In a nutshell, here’s the substantive disagreement. The administration believes the deal it’s negotiating will reduce Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium so much that Tehran’s leaders would need a year to break out of the agreement and produce enough fissile material to build a bomb—sufficient time to allow the U.S. and its allies to stop any such breakout. Mr. Netanyahu thinks that the residual enrichment capability granted Iran would still leave it as a threshold nuclear state, and would in any case be too large to adequately monitor and inspect with any certainty.

There was a time, not long ago, when Mr. Netanyahu appeared to be pleased enough with the economic pressure the U.S. and the West were putting on Iran that he thought it might produce a deal he considered good enough. By all appearances, that’s what has changed.

Is there any alternative to this impasse? Dennis Ross, a Middle East diplomat under several American presidents, including Mr. Obama, thinks there might be. He suggests a new kind of anywhere, any-time inspections regime, enshrined in both a deal and legislation passed by Congress. If that legislation also mandated explicit consequences for Iranian violations, including use of military force, it might create the kind of American assurance Mr. Netanyahu could accept.

“There is a way to bridge the difference,” Mr. Ross says. Next week, though, that may be hard to see.

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