Netanyahu’s Troubling Subtext

Though Iran’s nuclear program is the supposed focus of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s extraordinary speech to Congress, a troubling subtext is that the U.S. must have no meaningful dealings with Iran, a condition that undercuts American interests, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will talk, as he has innumerable times before, about how an Iranian nuclear weapon is supposedly an extremely grave and imminent (he has been saying for years that it is just around the corner) threat to world peace and to his nation.

There has been genuine concern in Israel about this subject, but Netanyahu’s own behavior and posture indicate this is not the concern that is driving his conduct and in particular his diplomacy-wrecking efforts. He is acting out of other motives, ones that, quite unlike the objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon, are not shared with the United States and instead directly conflict with U.S. interests.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

There have been plenty of reasons to doubt all along Netanyahu’s alarmist rhetoric. There has been his history of wolf-crying on the subject, against the background of an Iran that has not even decided to build a nuclear weapon. There is the further background of Israel’s overwhelming military superiority in the region, at not only the conventional level but also at the level about which Netanyahu is raising such alarm. And there are the repeated indications that his alarmism goes beyond what even his own security services believe.

But even those reasons are not the main ones to conclude that Netanyahu is not acting on behalf of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. The main, and most obvious, reason is that he is pushing for an outcome that would remove restrictions and enhanced monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program and would give the Iranians more freedom to expand that program than they otherwise would have.

That would be the result of destroying the negotiation process that Netanyahu is trying to destroy, while destroying along with it the preliminary agreement that has kept the Iranian program more heavily restricted and monitored than it had ever been before. An absence of agreement is the only plausible alternative to whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations, and Netanyahu is smart enough to realize that.

The made-for-TV (and for Israeli campaign ads) platform in the House of Representatives chamber does not give members of Congress an opportunity to ask questions of Netanyahu. All that members can do is to bob up and down out of their seats in a gluteus-abusing way of supposedly expressing their “support for Israel.”

But if they could ask questions, the glaring question begging to be asked is, “Mr. Prime Minister, if you really are so concerned about the possibility of the Iranian nuclear program leading to a nuclear weapon, why are you urging us to take actions that would result in that program having fewer restrictions, and less international monitoring, than it otherwise would?”

The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all.

Netanyahu’s defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government’s objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.

From Netanyahu’s viewpoint this objective serves several purposes. It diminishes the freedom of action of a major competitor (the second most populous country in the Middle East) for regional influence, and one that will continue to be highly critical of Israel as long as the Palestinian issue endures. By postulating a permanent, ominous threat emanating from Iran, one of the assumptions underlying a U.S. strategic relationship with Israel is retained.

By opposing, and to the extent Israeli efforts are successful, preventing, the United States from doing any worthwhile business with Iran, whether on nuclear matters or on anything else, the Israeli claim to being the only reliable and effective U.S. partner in the region sounds more convincing.

The specter of Iran and especially of its nuclear program also serves as the best possible distraction and diversion from issues in which Israel is the chief problem and that Netanyahu and his government would rather not talk about. This especially includes, of course, the continued Israeli occupation of, and policies in, Palestinian territory.

Netanyahu repeatedly and quickly responds to efforts by others to engage on these other issues, and especially to any direct criticism of Israeli policies, by reminding us that Iran is the “real” threat to peace and security in the region. Permanent festering of the Iranian nuclear issue serves Netanyahu’s objectives better than any resolution of the issue would.

The United States does not share an interest in any of these objectives, and some of them are clearly contrary to U.S. interests. The United States does not have an interest in blanket favoring of any one competitor for regional influence over others; it instead has interests in many individual issues, on some of which its interests might align with those of particular regional players and on others of which it may share interests with other players.

It is contrary to U.S. interests to give the right-wing Israeli government any means to perpetuate the occupation and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, given the multiple ways, including having the United States share blame for the occupation in the eyes of most Middle Easterners, that the occupation redounds to the disadvantage of the United States.

Probably the most direct conflict with U.S. interests comes from Netanyahu in effect telling the United States that it cannot do business with certain other countries, and that it cannot fully use its diplomatic tools to pursue U.S. interests as it sees fit. It is in the U.S. interest to use diplomacy with Iran, most obviously and immediately to restrict the Iranian nuclear program but also potentially on many other issues of importance to the United States.

Netanyahu is trying to keep one of the United States’ hands tied behind its back. He is trying to restrict the freedom of action not just of Iran but of the United States.  That is bad for U.S. interests no matter what party is in power in Washington, no matter who is the U.S. president, no matter what other countries U.S. diplomacy may touch, and no matter what specific policies the U.S. administration of the day may want to achieve and ought to have both hands free to try to achieve.

Amid all the understandable controversy about the highly inappropriate way in which Netanyahu’s Congressional appearance has come about, there have been appeals to focus on the substance at hand. Good advice, as long as we recognize the actual substance and the actual game being played.

We should not be diverted by the scaremongering rhetoric from the man at the podium, who is acting so inconsistently with the implications of his own rhetoric, any more than we should dwell forever on the underhanded political games that got him there. In between the bounces on their seats, members of Congress should think hard about whether it is Likud’s interests or U.S. interests that they have at heart, and how efforts associated with the former are undermining the latter.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

11 comments for “Netanyahu’s Troubling Subtext

  1. Nat Scientist
    March 4, 2015 at 19:51

    How does ‘firebombing Obama’s peace negotiation is a terrorist act’ sound? Nothing Obama could do but increase the distance from the kool-aided mob. Cui bono saves the day, if you think about it again.

  2. Morton Kurzweil
    March 4, 2015 at 16:37

    The troubling subtext is the expulsion of Jews from Orthodox Christian and Catholic imperialism, from democratic states fallen into military dictatorships and the Holocaust of Nazi insanity. When any threat of Jewish annihilation is taken lightly by anyone it is a matter of survival to Jews. It is not a matter of beliefs or miscalculation. It is a symptom of past acts of inhumanity to be dealt with without discussion.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    March 3, 2015 at 17:41

    I pegged Netanyahu’s speech to be 45 minutes long. I counted 24 standing ovations. That many ovations would be around every .5333 seconds our congress was standing and applauding this guy.

    Consider for the sake of balance if Hassan Rouhani were given the same 45 minutes to speak to our congressional representatives. Besides the fact this would never take place. could you imagine the outcry against such a man from Iran standing at our capital’s lectern? Never, gonna happen!

    Netanyahu spoke of how a nuclear armed Iran would encourage other mid east countries to seek their own nuclear arsenals. I take that to mean that a nuclear armed Israel doesn’t matter to these middle eastern countries.

    Tony Cartalucci, has written an interesting take on what this Netanyahu speech could be all about. It may just be all political theater.

    • Joe Tedesky
      March 3, 2015 at 20:29

      I believe my .5333 should be percentage of time congress remained sited. If I am right that would mean congress gave ovations 47% of the speech. Still a lot. I think ovations were somewhere around every two minutes….

      • Minnesota Mary
        March 4, 2015 at 01:41

        All those standing ovations were insurance premiums being paid so that each congressperson would not be targeted for defeat in their next election.

  4. Cold WInd
    March 3, 2015 at 17:06

    The issue should be what to do about Israel’s nuclear weapons and the proper assessment of their possible use is a future war. Israel, by any rational standard, represents a ‘clear and present danger’ to the entire world, let alone Iran. It is clear, Israel is planning a strike against Iran’s nuclear energy infrastructure regardless of the effectiveness of Netanyahu’s antic today before Congress and regardless of how such an action will harm US national interest. Obama would be wise to preempt any such move by Israel by moving now to degrade Israel’s capability to strike.

  5. Netanyahu Quotes
    March 3, 2015 at 13:49

    Send these Netanyahu quotes to your Congressman, since the mainstream media message boards are censored and will not allow their publication on those boards:

    “Once we squeeze all we can out of the United States, it can dry up and blow away.”

    “My opinion of Christian Zionists? They’re scum. But don’t tell them that. We need all the useful idiots we can get right now.”

    • bobzz
      March 4, 2015 at 02:30

      If you have the sources, I’d love to have ’em.

    • bobzz
      March 4, 2015 at 02:40

      My first post did not take, so I’ll try again. If you have the sources for those Netanyahu quotes, I’d love to have ’em.

  6. Abe
    March 3, 2015 at 13:35

    Netanyahu’s in town for a hand job. He froths about America and Israel’s mutual enemies (Iran and Obama). The War Party applauds feverishly and promises to throw more money.

  7. JuanV
    March 3, 2015 at 12:28

    US will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon? Time to wake up. Re: CIA Whistleblower (Jeffrey Sterling) Is Literally Facing 100 Years In Prison re: US empowering nuclear weapons development in Iran

    Some relevant facts that can be confirmed with relative ease Re: SERIOUS ACCUSATIONS HERE: “Time to Discuss Nuclear Treason,” by Preston James and Mike Harris (3/1/2015)

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