Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Israel tries to tilt the US’ Iran policy

Netanyahu’s approaching speech to the US Congress is a sign of Israel’s increasingly open interference in US politics, writes Gareth Porter

Al-Ahram Weekly

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin 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 a proposed new set of sanctions against Iran to be issued by the US Congress.

For months, pro-Israeli legislators and lobbyists have threatened to re-impose existing sanctions on Iran and add new ones while the negotiations are still ongoing. Regardless of the argument that the sanctions legislation is meant to strengthen the US negotiating hand, the real intent of those supporting sanctions has always been to ensure that no nuclear agreement can be reached.

Those proponents take their cues from Netanyahu. Ever since negotiations with the Rouhani government began, Netanyahu has openly stated that there should be no agreement. 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 negotiations through sanctions legislation. But there are more battles to come.

INFLUENCE AND THREATS: Current tensions over the Netanyahu speech is just the latest chapter in a long-running drama involving Israeli strategy to use its political power in the US Congress to tilt the US’s Iran policy in the direction Israel desires.

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 if it doesn’t, Israel might have to use force.

Netanyahu’s predecessor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, initiated that strategy between May and June in 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 programme 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 refuelling capacity needed. The whole exercise was really aimed at influencing the next US administration.

Israeli Defence 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, 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 defence minister in order to refine the strategy of bluff to have maximum effect on the Obama administration.

Netanyahu introduced a new element, playing the part of the zealot who views himself as the saviour of the Jewish people and saying he would use force to prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear programme.

Two articles by Jeffrey Goldberg in Atlantic magazine included interviews with Netanyahu, his aides and allies, with the apparent aim of convincing 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 PHONEY WAR: The climax of Netanyahu’s phony war threat was his carefully calculated showdown with Obama during the 2012 presidential campaign. It began with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) manoeuvring a 401 to 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, fuelled by tens of millions of dollars from Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu’s main financial backer for many years. But instead, Obama got tough on 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 his trip to the United States later that month.

ISRAEL’S ALLIES IN CONGRESS 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 fear of a ferocious attack from the same Congressional camp followers against any effort to get around those restrictions.

The power of the Israeli lobby is certainly part of the administration’s calculations in insisting that Iran must comply with US demands on 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 sign of Israel’s increasingly open interference in US politics. In the most recent manifestation of the subservient character of a large proportion of the US Congress in relation to Israel, Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) told Netanyahu, “The Congress will follow your lead” on Iran and will 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 a message to opponents 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 American incitement to war.

Nevertheless, we are still likely to see a revealing contrast next week as Netanyahu is lionised (yet 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.

The writer is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing on US national security policy.

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