THE BLOG
04/03/2015 11:28 GMT | Updated 04/05/2015 06:59 BST

Forget the Politics, Listen to Netanyahu's Argument

The political controversy surrounding the Israeli Prime Minister's trip to Washington should not obscure the message: the deal being negotiated does not do enough to roll back Iran's nuclear threat, could trigger a regional nuclear arms race, endangers Israel's national security, and should be therefore be toughened up.

The way this visit and speech were handled politically have caused consternation in Israel and in United States. But in Israel, whereas there may be widespread concern about the harm done to Israel relations with the current administration and the Democratic party, there is widespread agreement with the message.

Many commentators have dismissed the speech as containing nothing new, and as offering no alternative. They were not listening closely enough. This was not a speech of gimmicks - no cartoon bombs or nuclear ducks. But there was something new, an apparent concession in fact, and a strategy.

In the past Netanyahu has called consistently on Iran's enrichment activities to stop completely, as demanded by numerous UN Security Council resolutions. As recently as his speech to the UN in September 2014 he declared that the world must not allow Iran to enrich uranium.

That was not Netanyahu's demand this time. Instead he argued that, "Iran's nuclear program can be rolled back well-beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime." Meaning: insist on a longer breakout time than the one year target set publicly by the administration, and therefore by implication, far few centrifuges that the 6500 reported being offered. And if the Iranians don't accept it, be prepared to walk away and apply more pressure through tougher sanctions.

Netanyahu's second proposal related to conditions that should be imposed on the lifting of restrictions at the expiry of the deal, which according to Obama will be after "ten years or longer". It is currently not clear what conditions if any would apply after this period. What Netanyahu proposed is that the full normalisation or Iran's nuclear status (i.e. the period after "ten years or longer") would be linked to Iran's regional behaviour, specifically: stopping aggression against neighbours, stopping support for terrorism, and stopping threatening to annihilate Israel.

In short, Netanyahu was not making a case against any deal with Iran. He was making a case for a tougher deal with stronger and clearer conditions that does not leave Iran within touching distance of a nuclear weapon. He called for, "A better deal that Israel and its neighbours may not like, but with which we could live, literally."

Many in Israel will regret that this message was being delivered by a Prime Minister with such a poor relationship with the US administration. They fear also that Netanyahu's pleas are coming too late, and will be dismissed by an Obama administration that seems over committed to securing an agreement, and not ready enough to consider alternatives if the deal is not good enough.

The consolation in Israel is that even so, it is far from certain that the US negotiators will reach a deal. Indeed senior Israeli officials still hold on to a realistic hope that the one to scupper it will not be Netanyahu or the US Congress, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The P5+1 sticking to their positions may increase the chances of that. But when the Americans say that no deal is better than a bad deal, they should act like they mean it.

Dr. Toby Greene is director of research for BICOM and author of 'Blair, Labour and Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11' (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).