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The long history of Israel gaming the "Iranian threat"

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Reprinted from Middle East Eye

Years before his recent grandstanding in Congress, Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders conjured a threat where one previously didn't exist

Western news media has feasted on Prime Minister Netanyahu's talk and the reactions to it as a rare political spectacle rich in personalities in conflict. But the real story of Netanyahu's speech is that he is continuing a long tradition in Israeli politics of demonizing Iran to advance domestic and foreign policy interests.

The history of that practice, in which Netanyahu has played a central role going back nearly two decades, shows that it has been based on a conscious strategy of vastly exaggerating the threat from Iran.

In conjuring the spectre of Iranian genocide against Israelis, Netanyahu was playing two political games simultaneously. He was exploiting the fears of the Israeli population associated with the Holocaust to boost his electoral prospects while at the same time exploiting the readiness of most members of US Congress to support whatever Netanyahu orders on Iran policy.

Netanyahu's primary audience was the Israeli electorate. He was speaking as a candidate for re-election as prime minister in an election that is just two weeks away. His speech was calculated to play on the deep-rooted anxiety of Israeli voters about the outsiders who may want to destroy the Jewish people.

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Fear of the Persians

Netanyahu reminded his Israeli audience that, "In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people." That was an obvious allusion to the annual Jewish ritual at Passover of repeating the warning that "in every generation they have risen up against us to annihilate us." But Netanyahu drew a parallel between the story in the book of Esther about a "powerful Persian viceroy...who plotted to destroy the Jewish people 2,000 years ago" and "another attempt by another Persian potentate to destroy us."

Netanyahu was taking advantage of what former Israeli deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich calls the "Holocaust Syndrome" or "Masada complex" that is woven into the fabric of Israeli politics. His ranting about an Iran intending to wipe out the entire country has appealed especially to his Likud constituency and other Israelis who believe that the outside world is "permanently hostile" to the Jewish people.

Other Israeli prime ministers have played the Holocaust card for domestic purposes too. Yitzhak Rabin actually started it during his tenure as Prime Minister from 1992 to 1995, pointing to the alleged "existential threat" from Iran in order to justify his policy of negotiating with the PLO. It was also Rabin who established the propaganda theme of Iran as a terrorist threat to Jews across five continents that Netanyahu continues to cite today.

Phantom of genocide

Later, however, Netanyahu would use the alleged Iranian threat to do exactly the opposite -- refuse to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Many former senior military and intelligence officials have never forgiven Netanyahu for what they consider a reckless policy toward Iran that they link to his failure to deal with the Palestinian problem.

The demonization of Iran has also served Netanyahu's political interest in manipulating the policy of the US government and other other world powers. By portraying Iran as bent on the genocide of the Israeli Jews, Netanyahu has sought to get the Americans to threaten war against Iran, hoping for a real military confrontation that would lead to actual war with Iran that would reduce that country's power. A key element in Netanyahu's manipulation of the United States and other states has been the suggestion that it if they don't take care of the problem he may be forced to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

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He has failed to achieve that maximum objective, but he has been successful in his lesser objective of getting the United States to organize a system of "crippling sanctions" against Iran.

Rabin and the nuclear threat

The portrayal of Iran as a serious threat to Israel's existence has been serving Israeli diplomatic interests ever since Rabin reversed more than a decade of low-key policy toward the Islamic Republic and suddenly began claiming that Iran would have nuclear weapons and missiles capable of hitting Israel within three to seven years and appealed to the United States to stop it. The government even hinted in January 1995 that it might have to attack Iran's nuclear reactors (Iran had only one) as it had done against Iraq 12 years earlier.

Rabin, who did view Iran as a threat to Israel in the long run, deliberately exaggerated that threat, as one of his advisers later acknowledged, in part to ensure that the United States would continue to see Israel as its irreplaceable ally in the Middle East and not be tempted to come to terms with Iran. In fact, as Rabin's director of Mossad recalled two decades later, Israeli intelligence still considered Iran to rank much lower than Iraq and other threats to Israel during Rabin's tenure, because Iran was still preoccupied with Iraq and would have no missile that could reach Israel for many years.

Mossad has also repudiated Netanyahu's political manipulation of the Iran threat. Since 2012, at least Israeli intelligence has agreed with US intelligence that Iran has not made any decision to try to acquire nuclear weapons. And a series of Mossad chiefs have taken the unprecedented step openly rejecting Netanyahu's use of the term "existential threat."

"Existential danger" dismissed by Mossad

Tamir Pardo, the current chief of Mossad, has said that a nuclear Iran would not necessarily pose an existential threat to Israel even if it did acquire nuclear weapons. His predecessor Meir Dagan, who has made no secret of his disdain for Netanyahu's handling of policy toward Iran as dangerously reckless, said flatly in 2012, that "Israel faces no existential threat," and another previous Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, has also criticized Netanyahu for talking about an "existential threat" from Iran.

Interestingly, Netanyahu stopped using the term in his AIPAC and congressional speeches, while continuing to make the claim that Iran has genocidal intentions toward Israel.

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Gareth Porter (born 18 June 1942, Independence, Kansas) is an American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst on U.S. foreign and military policy. A strong opponent of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, he has also (more...)

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