Reprinted from Consortium News
Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu's acceptance of an invitation to speak to the U.S. Congress on March 3, 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 now before the Congress.
For many months, pro-Israeli legislators and lobbyists have been threatening new sanctions on Iran while negotiations are still going on. Despite the argument that the sanctions legislation is meant to strengthen the U.S. negotiating hand, the real purpose of the proponents of sanctions has always been to ensure that no nuclear agreement can be reached.
The Obama administration has made it clear that it would veto 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.
The current tensions over the Netanyahu speech are just the latest chapter in a long-running drama involving an Israeli strategy to use its political power in the Congress to tilt U.S.-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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
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.
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