Will Netanyahu attack Iran?

September 5, 2012

Daphna Thier separates rhetoric from reality in Israel's ongoing campaign of disinformation and fear-mongering about Iran.

FOR MONTHS now, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been ratcheting up the threat of war against Iran.

On a daily basis, the Israeli media is filled with speculation about when a military strike might take place. The fear that such a strike could lead to an all-out war--and place at risk the lives of millions in the Middle East--is outmatched by an even greater fear stoked by Netanyahu and Barak: that a nuclear-armed Iran is inevitable unless such a strike takes place sooner rather than later.

Israel's saber-rattling against Iran continues despite numerous reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is years away from developing nuclear-weapon capabilities. The IAEA acknowledges that it can't prove Iran is engaged in the use of nuclear technology for other than energy purposes, which is an internationally recognized right. Over the years, U.S. National Intelligence Estimates have reached the same conclusion.

In late August, the New York Times reported: "[T]he International Atomic Energy Agency reported an increase in the number of centrifuges that Iran has installed in an underground enrichment plant that is largely invulnerable to Israeli attack, but also indicated that Iran has converted some of its most highly enriched fuel to a form that would be difficult to use in a weapon."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Pete Souza)

Netanyahu's insistence on the urgent need for an attack against Iran has so far met with resistance from Israel's military leaders, who worry that such a high-risk strategy could fail, thus further undermining Israel's strategic position as it struggles to reckon with the winds of changes sweeping through the region, from Egypt to Syria.

Rhetorically, though, Netanyahu is relying on the age-old mantra, introduced by Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, that the threat of a second Holocaust looms over Israel. He is doing so to conceal his true motives.

First, Netanyahu's right-wing government is under growing pressure from within Israel, facing growing bitterness at economic disparities as well as a lack of public confidence. Shifting the public's attention from inequality and the global financial crisis to a "national security threat" is a tried-and-true method to rally the nation and deflect anger from the Israeli political establishment's own failings.

Second, Israel has been accelerating its expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank. During the past few months, Israel has managed to divert all talk in the international arena away from Israel's crimes against the Palestinians, and the once-prominent focus on "peace negotiations" with the Palestinian Authority has been all but abandoned.

Third, there's the Levy Report--an "investigation" into the legal status of the settlements in the West Bank, conducted by a three-person committee appointed by Netanyahu and headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy. The report asserts, in direct contradiction to decades of international law and established precedent, that the West Bank is, in fact, not an occupied territory.

The report, however, does not conclude that Israel must annex the West Bank. This leaves its 2.5 million Palestinian inhabitants in a legal quandary--Israel refuses to extend citizenship or even residency rights to Palestinians in the West Bank. In fact, the only "injustice" the report documents at all is that the further development of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank has been hindered by the state's refusal to grant building permits.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Netanyahu's motivation for a strike against Iran is to preserve Israel's unparalleled military dominance in the region, including its nuclear capability. Despite being the sole nuclear power in the Middle East, and despite the support given to it by the U.S. and its other allies, Israel has suffered several military failures in recent decades. A successful assault on Iran would allow it to demonstrate its continued military prowess.

THROUGHOUT HIS term, Netanyahu has taken increasingly bold measures in both the domestic and international arenas.

Within Israel, he is consolidating power. This summer, after a no-confidence vote in the government, he cobbled together the largest-ever coalition government in Israeli history in order to avoid new elections. The coalition didn't last more than a few weeks, but elections were averted.

Most recently, he passed new rules of conduct for the cabinet, giving him the authority to stall any decision and overturn anything ministers vote on--or, alternatively, to push through new government policies in a 12-hour window, via telephone. This gives Netanyahu the unprecedented capacity to accelerate or delay any government decision, such as starting a war, in order to get the result he wants.

The timing of Netanyahu's war threats is also about using the upcoming U.S. elections to circumvent any possible opposition from the Obama administration, whether open or behind the scenes.

This is a calculated threat. Netanyahu believes--as do, in all likelihood, White House officials--that if Obama refuses to support Israel in whatever course it chooses, it increases Romney's chances of victory. Thus, Netanyahu hopes, Obama will be forced to accept Israeli actions, and possibly even joint military action. From Netanyahu's point of view, it's a win-win situation: either he gets Obama's blessing or he gets Romney elected.

A military strike against Iran has thus become the litmus test for determining whether U.S. politicians truly support Israel. In Obama's speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee back in March, he stated:

I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran, a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored, an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions, and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

This is strikingly similar to what Romney promised while visiting Jerusalem this past July:

We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course...And it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no options should be excluded. We recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you.

IT'S SAFE to assume that Netanyahu is drooling at the prospect of a Romney presidency. Despite the rhetoric to contrary, Obama has been a firm ally of Israel, but to Netanyahu, Romney is even closer.

Romney and Netanyahu's friendship began 36 years ago when they both worked at the Boston Consulting Group as corporate advisers. Since then, they've maintained their relationship, exchanging stories over dinner with their wives as they both clawed their way up the political ladder. Their similar right-wing ideologies and mutual friends have helped sustain a close personal relationship through the years.

"We can almost speak in shorthand," Mr. Romney said in an April interview with the New York Times. "We share common experiences and have a perspective and underpinning which is similar."

One of those mutual friends is Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns the Palazzo and Venetian casinos in Las Vegas as well other casinos and properties around the world. Forbes estimates Adelson's wealth at nearly $25 billion, making him the seventh-richest man in America.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies' Right Web, Adelson "is an important financial backer of right-wing 'pro-Israel' groups in the United States and elsewhere in the world, as well as a prominent supporter of key Likud Party officials."

Adelson is an ardent supporter of Israel and believes the Palestinians have no rightful national or territorial claims. He has also given generously to various campaigns to further the Islamophobic effort. According to Aram Roston of The Daily Beast, he "sponsored a seminar in 2008 provocatively titled the 'Islamic Jihad in America: What You Need to Know about Radical Muslim Infiltration of American Culture, Finance, Education, and Life." In November of last year, Ronston reports, "Adelson appeared on the stage of the Zionist Organization of America to present...Glenn Beck with a 'Defender of Israel' Award."

In 2006, Adelson founded Israel Hayom, a newspaper with a mission to counter the unflattering portrait of Netanyahu presented by Israel's three largest newspapers. At a current estimated loss to Adelson personally of almost $100 million, the right-wing daily is distributed for free and is now the most widely read newspaper in Israel. Not surprisingly, this paper is relentlessly building the anti-Iran fear campaign.

More recently, however, Adelson donated a whopping $10 million to the Super PAC Restore Our Future, making him Romney's top donor and the 32nd billionaire to donate to Romney's campaign. The next closest donation is from Citadel hedge fund chief Ken Griffin, at roughly $2.85 million.

Already, Adelson has said that he wants Romney to grant clemency to the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard upon entering office. He has also been heavily campaigning for the U.S. to go to war with Iran and to support Netanyahu unconditionally.

ROMNEY HAS meanwhile stated that "if Barack Obama gets reelected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and the world will change." But rhetoric aside, what has President Obama not done that a Republican would? Arguably nothing, and it's even conceivable that he did more than Bush could have dreamed of doing.

Among the Obama administration's anti-Iran policies are suspected collaboration with covert operations to kill Iranian nuclear scientists, harsh economic sanctions that have forced up food prices and put at risk the lives of millions, and stationing more troops at bases all around Iran--from Qatar to Kuwait to Afghanistan.

What is certain is that the Democratic Party establishment understands the situation in its broad outlines exactly as the Republicans do. After the U.S. was forced to pull out all its troops, Iraq is now under increasing Iranian influence. With important allies less reliable since the Arab Spring, the U.S is desperate not to cede any more ground to Iran, which could potentially be a focal point for a Middle East outside of and in opposition to U.S. power in the region.

On the other hand, rushing into a war with Iran would be dangerous. The Pentagon, like the Israeli military establishment, is opposed to an immediate strike. After years of unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recent "pivot" to the Pacific and Southeast Asia in response to the growing influence of China, U.S. military forces and financial coffers are stretched thin.

Although Netanyahu is making noises about going it alone in a strike against Iran, Israel can do no such thing without the support of the U.S. The financial burden alone would be too much for Israel to bear unilaterally.

But even if Netanyahu has used such rhetoric in the past, bellicose statements can compel those who utter them to action, however ill advised. What's more, Israel is more on the offensive now, if for largely defensive reasons. The Arab uprisings shaking the region put previous security arrangements with Israel's neighbors at risk. The most significant of these arrangements is with Egypt, where the revolutionary process is still playing out. In Syria, a new government could upend the understanding that Israel has reached with the Assad regime--plus a change in Syria could produce a chain reaction within Israel's northern neighbor of Lebanon.

These developments could transform the region and pose a direct challenge to Israeli and U.S. hegemony. So even as Netanyahu threatens to bring Israel's military superiority to bear on Iran, there is also hope that the Arab masses will be able to break free from the shackles of dictators and imperialist powers alike, and win their own freedom, from Palestine to Syria to Egypt to Bahrain and beyond.

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