By going over President Obama’s head to Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is taking a big gamble, apparently hoping that he can block any U.S. rapprochement with Iran and heighten tensions in the Middle East, a strategy that lacks both facts and logic, says Ted Snider.
By Ted Snider
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iranian policy not only doesn’t make sense, it is becoming a threat to Israel’s own self interest. The Iran policy suffers from a self-defeating paradox.
Netanyahu seems to believe that preventing America from making a nuclear deal with Iran, and, indeed, preventing America from any dealing with Iran, is essential to maintaining Israel’s special relationship with America. But his very action of preventing America from making a nuclear deal with Iran is threatening Israel’s special relationship with America.
The determination to isolate Iran and vilify it in the international community makes no sense, and the indictment is riddled with false premises.
The first flaw in the case is the very insistence by Netanyahu that Iran is building a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu has long warned that Iran is rounding the corner on the road to the nuclear bomb. But his due dates have come and gone. Why? According to the U.S., it’s because Iran is not building a nuclear bomb.
National Intelligence Estimates (N.I.E.) represent the collective conclusions of the top analysts of all of America’s many intelligence agencies. The 2007 N.I.E. said with “high confidence” that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (there is no evidence that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program before 2003 either). That conclusion has been “revalidated every year,” according to former CIA analyst Ray McGovern.
The most recent N.I.E. delivered by the intelligence community provides even “more evidence to support that assessment,” according to sources of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. General James Clapper, who was responsible for preparing the N.I.E., said that “the bottom-line assessments of the  N.I.E. still hold true. We have not seen indications that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program.”
When Senate Armed Service Committee chair Carl Levin asked General Clapper if the level of confidence that Iran has not restarted a nuclear weapons program was high, Clapper answered, “Yes, it is.” Hersh quotes a retired senior intelligence officer as saying “none of our efforts –informants, penetrations, planting of sensors — leads to a bomb.”
But that’s American intelligence? Perhaps Israeli intelligence disagrees. But it has long been know that it does not. Yuval Diskin, the man who headed Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, for six years, accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of “misleading the public on the Iran issue.”
Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, then Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, insisted that Iran has not “made the decision” to pursue a nuclear weapons program and that the “Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people” who are unlikely to build a bomb.
Netanyahu only knows what his intelligence community tells him. They are his eyes and ears, and we only know what our eyes and ears tell us. But perhaps Netanyahu’s certainty that Iran is building a bomb comes from higher up in his defense department.
Not according to then Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has clearly stated that “it is not the case” that “Iran is determined to . . . attempt to obtain nuclear weapons . . . as quickly as possible.” He then added rhetorically, “To do that, Iran would have to announce it is leaving the inspection regime . . . . Why haven’t they done that?”
So how does Netanyahu know Iran is pursuing a nuclear bomb? He doesn’t.
In September 2012, Netanyahu gave his memorable UN address in which he insisted that Iran was 70 percent of the way to completing its “plans to build a nuclear weapon,” and that “[b]y next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, [Iran] will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.”
A month later, Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, was telling South Africa in a classified assessment that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons,” and that Iran “doesn’t appear to be ready to enrich uranium to the higher levels needed for a nuclear bomb.”
On a historical timeline, Netanyahu’s public international insistence that Iran was nearly finished building a nuclear bomb would overlap with his intelligence agency’s private “bottom line” assessment that it was not.
The second premise of Netanyahu’s argument against Iran is that it is not only pursuing a nuclear bomb, but that it would constitute a serious existential threat to Israel if it had one, because Iran had threatened “to wipe Israel off the map.”
Leaving aside that Iran has a new administration now, despite the stubbornly persistent reportage by the media and charges by politicians, the former Iranian administration under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never threatened “to wipe Israel off the map.”
The mistranslation has been irresponsibly repeated despite the constant authoritative corrections. Amongst the translation errors, Iranian expert Trita Parsi states that “Ahmadinejad’s statement has generally been mistranslated to read, ‘Wipe Israel off the map.’ Ahmadinejad never used the word ‘Israel’ but rather the ‘occupying regime of Jerusalem,’ which is a reference to the Israeli regime and not necessarily to the country.”
Not only is the “Israel” part mistranslated, but so is the “wiped off the map” part. The line, according to Flint Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, is properly translated as, “this regime occupying Jerusalem must disappear from the page of time.” This statement is a reference to a wish for a future time when the Israeli government no longer occupies Palestinian territory. This wish is not for the end of the state of Israel or her people, but for the end of the occupation, and is not, therefore, a threat of aggression, but a wish no different from the official wish of the United States.
Jonathan Steele adds that Ahmadinejad went on to make an analogy between the elimination of the regime occupying Jerusalem and the fall of the Shah of Iran, clearly showing that he is wishing for a regime change and not the elimination of a nation and her people, unless he is suicidally wishing for the elimination of himself and his own country.
And it is not just Iran experts who deny Ahmadinejad’s murderous wish for Israel. Dan Meridor, Israeli minister of intelligence and atomic energy and the deputy prime minister at the time, admitted to his Al Jazeera interviewer that “They didn’t say ‘we’ll wipe it out.’ You are right.”
Not only did Iran not threaten to annihilate Israel, it promised to recognize and open relations with Israel. At the 2002 Arab League Summit, Iran was among the signatories of the Saudi Peace Initiative that promised to recognize the State of Israel and establish normal relations with it in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territory and a just settlement for Palestinian refugees. The initiative was reaffirmed in 2009.
In Search of Logic
So Netanyahu’s Iran policy makes little sense. Neither does his strategy for approaching that policy. Netanyahu has recently vowed to “act in every way to foil the bad and dangerous agreement” between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus German). But his promise to sabotage the talks has backfired, and his efforts seem, not to have slowed talks between America and Iran, but, instead, threatened the special relationship between Israel and America that his efforts at sabotage are meant to protect.
It has not only placed the two allies in a position of “very real differences,” as President Obama called it, it has led to Israel being cut out of the loop: an extraordinary shift in the relationship between two countries who seemed to share everything on Iran and the Iran negotiations. Because the Obama administration now believes that Netanyahu has cherry-picked sensitive details about the nuclear negotiations and leaked the misleading information to Israeli journalists, it has now begun to limit the scope, quality and depth of the information it shares with Israel.
So, rather than preserving or enhancing the special relationship between the two countries, the U.S. administration now perceives them as having “a conflict of interest regarding the Iranian issue.” Netanyahu’s Iran strategy seems to make no sense because, in his attempt to hang on to the special relationship with the U.S., his attempts to sabotage America’s pursuit of its own foreign policy issues seems to have had precisely the opposite effect. America now sees Israel as a saboteur who is not allied with its interests but in conflict with them.
Netanyahu’s acceptance of the Republican back-door invitation to address Congress has only enhanced this rift in the relationship. In the past, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) could count on having its policy conference being “attended by more members of Congress than almost any other event, except for a joint session of Congress or a State of the Union address.”
However, the Israeli Prime Minister’s willingness to offer himself as an alternative to the American President in the American Congress has led to several members of Congress staying away from the AIPAC conference this year.
But the change in the relationship is not only demonstrated by the congressional absences. This year’s American delegation will be headed by national security advisor Susan Rice and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, both of whom will speak at the conference. Though both speakers are high-ranking officials, the delegation seems to telegraph an important downgrade from recent years when President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the AIPAC conference. It is also telling that no high-ranking U.S. official will agree to meet with Netanyahu while he is in Washington.
Netanyahu’s actions seem to expose an Israeli vulnerability. The special relationship between Israel and the United States sprouted in the latter half of the 1960s and continued to grow throughout the Cold War when the U.S. feared Soviet encroachment into the Middle East. Different Middle Eastern states allied with different super powers, and, in return, the different super powers protected different Middle Eastern states.
Israel also feared Soviet influence in the region. In particular, Israel feared Egypt’s relationship with the U.S.S.R., the U.S.S.R.’s protection of Egypt and the possibility of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser spreading a pan-Arab communism in the Middle East. Israel offered itself as a bulwark against Soviet expansion and interference with American interests in the Middle East.
From the American perspective, then, the special relationship with Israel is based in large part on Israel being a regional ally to American foreign policy interests. If Israel takes a conflicting interest to that of America’s foreign policy interests and even goes so far as to attempt to sabotage them, then the value of the special relationship becomes questionable from an American perspective.
Recently, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has said that Netanyahu’s sabotaging of American interests has put Israel at “intolerable” risk. Dagan said that “An Israeli prime minister who enters into conflict with an American administration must ask himself what are the risks. . . . The veto umbrella provided by the Americans could vanish, and Israel would promptly find itself facing international sanctions. The risks in this confrontation are intolerable.”
And now Dagan has been joined by 200 retired and reserve officers all with a rank equivalent to general. The group, calling itself Commanders for Israel’s Security, says that Netanyahu has become a “danger” to Israel and that he is “wreck[ing] our strategic interests with our closest ally.”
Finally, Netanyahu’s approach to Iran now faces one more vulnerability. The recent U.S. trial of Jeffrey Sterling has made it clear to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that countries hostile to Iran could “plant a ‘smoking gun’ in Iran for the IAEA to find.” This real possibility may lead the IAEA to reassess some of the evidence that it has used to criticize Iran.
As James Risen revealed in State of War, the CIA passed on flawed nuclear blueprints in a bungled attempt to lead Iranian nuclear scientists down the wrong road, revealing the possibility that other documents were planted in Iran. If the IAEA reassesses evidence it has used against Iran to see if they are fake, there could be more damage to Israel from its anti-Iran strategy. Several of the most damaging pieces of evidence against Iran including laptop documents about sites at Parchin and Marivan have been suspected of being Israeli forgeries, as argued by Gareth Porter in his book Manufactured Crisis and, more recently, elsewhere. Revelation of Israeli forgeries to implicate Iran could damage Israel and backfire in its attempt to convict Iran of duplicitously building nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu’s Iran policy makes little sense, not only because of the questionable veracity of its premises, but, perhaps even more importantly, because of the self-defeating nature of the strategy. In an attempt to preserve Israel’s value to America after the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of Russia as a threat to the Middle East, Netanyahu seems to perceive the need to maintain Iran as a threat to American interests to maintain the need for Israel as a friendly and powerful partner in the region.
But in pursuing the strategy of preserving the perception of the Iranian threat in order to maintain the special relationship with the United States, Netanyahu is pursuing strategies that sabotage America’s own foreign policy interests and jeopardize the very special relationship with the United States that the strategy is meant to preserve.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.