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Netanyahu’s Speech and the Politics of Iran Policy
Gareth Porter
Information Clearing House
February 03, 2015

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation to
speak to the US Congress on 3 March, two weeks before the Israeli election and
without any consultation with the White House, is aimed at advancing both
Netanyahu’s re-election and the proposed new set of sanctions against Iran in
the US Congress. For many months, pro-Israeli legislators and lobbyists have
been threatening to re-impose existing sanctions on Iran and add new ones while
negotiations are still going on.
Regardless of the argument that the sanctions legislation is meant to strengthen
the US negotiating hand, the real purpose of the proponents of sanctions has
always been to ensure that no nuclear agreement can be reached. Those proponents
take their cues from Netanyahu, and that has been Netanyahu’s openly proclaimed
aim ever since the negotiations with the Rouhani government began. Netanyahu has
often insisted that Israel will not accept an agreement that allows Iran to
retain any enrichment capability.

The Obama administration has made it clear that it would veto such new sanctions
legislation, arguing that it would leave the United States with no options
except the threat of war. That argument prevailed in the Senate earlier, and the
administration may well be able to use it again to defeat the Israeli effort to
sabotage the negotiations through sanctions legislation. But there are more
battles to come.

Influence and threats

The current tensions over the Netanyahu speech is just the latest chapter in a
long-running drama involving an Israeli strategy to use its political power in
the US Congress to tilt US Iran policy in the direction Israel desires. But in
the past, that Israeli advantage has been combined with a strategy of trying to
get the United States to take care of Iran’s nuclear problem by suggesting that,
otherwise Israel might have to use force itself.

Netanyahu’s predecessor, Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, initiated that strategy in
May-June 2008, when the Israeli Air Force carried out a two-week air war
exercise over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece. During that exercise, Deputy
Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz threatened that if Iran continued what he called “its
program for developing nuclear weapons”, Israel “would attack”.

In fact, the purported rehearsal for attack and explicit war threats were a
ruse. The Israeli Air Force did not have the ability to carry out such an
attack, because it had only a fraction of the refueling capacity it would have
needed. The whole exercise was really aimed at influencing the next US
administration. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who conceived the strategy,
sought to take advantage of the waning months of the George W Bush
administration, which cooperated with the Israelis in pointing to the exercise
as a signal to Iran that Israel’s most enthusiastic US ally would leave office
in a few months. After Netanyahu was elected prime minister for a second time in
early 2009, he kept Barak as his defense minister in order to refine the
strategy of bluff to have maximum effect on the Obama administration.

Netanyahu introduced a new element into the ruse, playing the part of the zealot
who viewed himself as the savior of the Jewish people who would use force to
prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear program. He used two articles by
Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic magazine featuring interviews with Netanyahu or his
aides and allies to sway the American political elite to believe his bluff.

In contrast to his calculated self-created image as a messiah ready to
recklessly go to war, Netanyahu’s reputation in Israeli political circles was
one of a risk-averse politician. The editor of Haaretz, Aluf Benn, told me in a
March 2012 interview that Netanyahu was generally known as a “hesitant
politician who would not dare to attack without American permission.”

Netanyahu’s phony war

The climax of Netanyahu’s phony war threat was his carefully calculated showdown
with Obama during the 2012 presidential campaign. It began with AIPAC
maneuvering a 401-11 vote in the House of Representatives demanding that Iran be
prevented from having “nuclear weapons capability.” Then, in August – two weeks
before the Republican convention – after leaking to the press that he had all
but made the decision to attack Iran in the fall, Netanyahu offered Obama what
was termed a “compromise”: if he publicly accepted Netanyahu’s “red line” that
Iran would not be allowed to have the enrichment capability for a bomb,
Netanyahu would consider it a “virtual commitment” by Obama to “act militarily
if needed” and “reconsider” his decision to attack Iran.

Netanyahu believed Obama would be forced to go along with the offer by the
threat from a militantly pro-Israel Romney campaign, fueled by tens of millions
of dollars from Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu’s main financial backer for many
years. But instead, Obama got tough with Netanyahu. The Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey declared that he – meaning the US
military – would not be “complicit” in any Israeli attack. Several days later,
in a long phone conversation with Netanyahu, Obama flatly rejected his demand
for a time limit on how long the US would wait for Iran to comply with its
negotiating demands. And he refused to meet with the prime minister during a
trip to the United States later that month.

Israel’s Congress allies constrain Obama

After that defeat, the air went out of Netanyahu’s war threat strategy. But he
still has his minions in Congress, and they have had a palpable impact on
Obama’s negotiating position in the nuclear talks. The demand for a much smaller
number of Iranian centrifuges than required to guarantee against an Iranian dash
for a bomb was adopted primarily in order to stave off a concerted attack from
the Congressional followers of Israel. And the administration’s posture on
lifting sanctions is hamstrung by existing laws that were passed on the demand
of Israel and by the fear of the ferocious attack from the same Congressional
camp followers to any effort to get around those restrictions.

The power of the Israeli lobby is certainly part of the administration’s
calculation in insisting that Iran must comply with US demands on the enrichment
capacity and give up its aspiration for the removal of all US unilateral
sanctions as well as UN Security Council sanctions.

Netanyahu’s approaching speech to Congress is a reflection of the increasingly
open interference in US politics by Israel and its political forces in the
United States. In the most recent manifestation of the subservient character of
a large proportion of the US Congress in relation to Israel, Senator Lindsey
Graham (R.-S.C.) told Netanyahu, “The Congress will follow your lead” on Iran
and would demand a role in the final settlement. The phenomenon is a direct
result of the large campaign contributions that go into the coffers of those in
Congress who “follow the lead” of Israel and to the opponents of those who fail
to do so. Such is the power wielded by AIPAC that very few dare to stand up to
its threats.

There are limits to what an otherwise obsequious Congress will do for Netanyahu
and Israel. Many members will not vote for a measure that can be credibly
presented as an incitement to US war. Nevertheless, we are still likely to see a
revealing contrast next week as Netanyahu is lionized (again) by the US Congress
even as he is under fire in his own election campaign for his clumsy and
possibly costly insult to the Obama administration.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing
on US national security policy. His latest book, “Manufactured Crisis: The
Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare,” was published in February 2014
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