The Israel Lobby Shows Its Clout

House Speaker Boehner’s unprecedented invitation to give Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a platform of a joint session of Congress to undercut President Obama’s foreign policy is just the latest example of how much power the Israel lobby wields, as Gareth Porter explains.

By Gareth Porter

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.

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office, Oct 1, 2014. The meeting was described as chilly, reflecting the strained relationship between the two leaders. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office, Oct 1, 2014. The meeting was described as chilly, reflecting the strained relationship between the two leaders. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Those proponents take their cues from Netanyahu, and that has been Netanyahu’s openly proclaimed aim ever since the negotiations with the Rouhani government of Iran 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 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.

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 U.S. demands on the enrichment capacity and give up its aspiration for the removal of all U.S. unilateral sanctions as well as UN Security Council sanctions.

Netanyahu’s approaching speech to Congress is a reflection of the increasingly open interference in U.S. 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 Congress in relation to Israel, Sen. 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 U.S. war. Nevertheless, we are still likely to see a revealing contrast as Netanyahu is lionized (again) by the 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. [This story first appeared in Middle East Eye.]

4 comments for “The Israel Lobby Shows Its Clout

  1. Zachary Smith
    February 3, 2015 at 01:45

    As I’ve remarked previously, I’m quite helpless on this issue. My two Indiana senators are totally in bed with Israel, and so is my congressman. Past calls to their offices verified that they don’t give a hoot about what I think. At one extreme I’ll get a blunt letter saying that doing what Israel wants overrides all other considerations, and at the other the officehead letter will meander around without saying anything besides vague platitudes.

    I don’t buy anything from Israel, so I can’t boycott the shitty little apartheid state.

    Basically, all I can do is grouse.

    Israel can’t do any real damage to Iran without using nuclear weapons. That doesn’t seem to be a practical proposition or they’d have already done it. Twisting the arm of the US to attack Iran is all that’s left, and IMO the window for even that is closing. It’s likely just a matter of time before Iran joins some kind of security organization with Russia and China. And even without such a treaty, Iran has some real claws. I suspect they could end up doing as much harm to the US as the Empire could do to them.

    News reports keep speaking of Iran getting the S-300 air defense system. A news item I saw earlier today spoke of Russia modernizing another air-defense weapon.

    Russia is in talks with Iran to modernize Iranian short range Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) surface-to-air missile defense systems, Ria Novosti reported 29 January 2015.

    From the wiki for this system:

    Kill probabilities for later versions are quoted as:

    0.92-0.95 against aircraft
    0.80-0.96 against helicopters
    0.60-0.90 against cruise missiles (with an effective range of around 5 km/3 miles)
    0.70-0.90 against precision munitions (LGBs, glide bombs, etc.)
    0.90 against UAVs

    The precision munitions is highlighted because the bomb Israel (and the Empire) REALLY wants to drop is the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator. So far as I know the only practical carrier for this weapon is the B2 bomber. Because it’s a gravity bomb, the B2 has to come quite close to the target. As soon as the MOP is released, it’ll become a target for the anti-air weapons in its own right. Considering the Iranians have had years to consider all the possibilities, I’m afraid the US could lose a lot of very expensive weaponry as well as some Air Force crewmen. B2 bombers are difficult targets, but they’re not impossible ones. Especially when the enemy knows they’re coming.

    No wonder Netanyahu is working so hard to make the sanctions both tougher and eternal.

  2. Vivek Jain
    February 2, 2015 at 20:57

    If Obama was opposed to war on Iran, what is keeping him from telling the American public what the intelligence community has long known: that Iran does not have and is not pursuing nuclear weapons? If Obama was a peacenik, as Parry and others here try to portray him to be, what keeps him from openly telling the public that Israel has nuclear weapons and must cease its nuclear weapons program? If Obama wanted to keep the US from attacking Iran, then how do you explain Operation Olympic Games, or the State Department’s delisting of the MEK from its list of terrorist organizations?

  3. Raymond Smith
    February 2, 2015 at 17:11

    This type of behavior will only continue as long as the American people allow it to. It is long past time that the USA pullout of the Middle East all together. Let Israel be a real country and stand on it’s own. No more aide of any kind to it. Close their embassy in the US and tell them see ya later.

    These would be real and just consequences for meddling in US politics.

    • Den
      February 2, 2015 at 19:39

      And take some of that 3 billion a year in “aid” we give to Israel and use it for the clean-up in parks township pa. Look up the book “divert” by Grant Smith.

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