Behind Israel’s Hostility toward Iran

For a decade after Iran’s Islamic revolution, Israel quietly armed the regime which Prime Minister Netanyahu now condemns as an “existential threat.” What caused the shift? Part of the reason was and remains domestic Israeli politics and managing the U.S. relationship, writes Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

Western news media has feasted on Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

Iranian women attending a speech by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

Iranian women attending a speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

In conjuring the specter 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 U.S. 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.

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 U.S. government and 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 nations 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.

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.

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 Iran 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 advisors 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 U.S. 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.”

Mossad Dismisses ‘Existential Danger’

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.

Netanyahu’s dishonesty on the subject of Iran is best documented by the fact that he was so persuaded by Mossad’s briefing on the subject when he first became prime minister in 1996 that he appointed the Mossad briefer, Uzi Arad, as his national security adviser and abandoned the Labor government’s exaggerated depiction of the threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile program. For six months the Israeli government stopped claiming that Iran was threatening Israel.

What induced Netanyahu to start selling the snake oil of Iran as menace to Israel was not any new evidence of Iranian interest in nuclear weapons or hostility toward Israel. It was the fear of a rapprochement between the Clinton administration and the newly elected Khatami government and the hope of depriving Iran of what was assumed to be Russian assistance for building missiles that could reach Israel.

Netanyahu was alarmed by the signals from both Tehran and Washington in the summer of 1997 indicating interest in reducing tensions between the two countries. That would have represented a real threat to Israel’s political and strategic interests, and he was determined to cut it short. Netanyahu’s response was to start to begin sending messages to Iran through other governments that Israel would carry out pre-emptive strikes against Iranian missile development sites unless it stopped its ballistic missile program.

It was a reckless tactic that would not cause Iran to stop working on missiles, but could well provoke a much tougher Iranian public posture toward Israel. That, in turn, would allow Netanyahu to put pressure on the Clinton administration to steer clear of any warming relations with Iran.

Netanyahu’s indirect threats did cause Iran to focus much more on the potential threat from Israel in its missile program, making Iran and Israel strategic adversaries for the first time. Netanyahu bears personal responsibility for having created a conflict with Iran that had never existed before. But it is not the conflict that he has been alleging all these years.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This story first appeared at Middle East Eye.]

23 comments for “Behind Israel’s Hostility toward Iran

  1. Thomas Howard
    March 8, 2015 at 01:50

    The comments were refreshing with so many people not buying the bs of the powers that be.

  2. Lee Abrams
    March 7, 2015 at 23:52

    The author is right – Iran is not a threat to Israel. On the contrary, Iran is helping the populations in Syria and Lebanon gaza and Yemen because they are charitable and are trying to spread peace and love. Israeli government has to spread lies about the peace loving Iran who is harnessing nuclear power for charitable loving reasons.

  3. Erik
    March 7, 2015 at 21:15

    We should recall that Israel supplied arms to both sides of the Iran-Iraq war with intent to maximize casualties for both of them, and trans-shipped the arms of the Iran-Contra scandal.

    Recall also that it was the US defsec Wolfowitz who appointed long-time zionist warmongers Wurmser, Feith, and Perl (one an Israeli agent) to run offices at CIA, DIA, and NSA that fed discredited WMD “intelligence” to Cheney et al to start Iraq War II on false pretenses. Those three had earlier sought to convince Netanyahu to trick the US into a war there (see Bamford’s Pretext for War).

    Netanyahu is a classic right-wing tyrant, inventing foreign monsters to demand domestic power and accuse his opponents of disloyalty, just as Aristotle warned. This always works best in reaction to injury from an external right-wing, and so it was perhaps an inevitable tragedy that the essentially fascist zionists would gain power amongst Jews in the wake of WWII fascism.

    These things normally die out after a few generations, but Israel’s right wing has continued outrageous provocations against the Palestinians whose land they stole, to ensure a supply a incidents to rationalize their domestic support.

  4. Peter Loeb
    March 7, 2015 at 08:40


    Gareth Porter’s articles always make sense.

    I can only add that I distinguish so-called “anti-Semitism” (however defined) with anti-Israeliism and my passionate anti-Zionism.

    (Full disclosure: My ancestors friom the 19th century were “Jewish”, my own family never
    practiced any aspect of Judiasm, celebrated any Jewish feasts, went to any temple etc.)

    Had I the power, I would wish to completely “deligitamize” any and all Zionist projects including “ISRAEL” which as Michael Prior documents is one of many examples of “settler
    colonialism” with similarities and differences to the many other forms of such colonialism.
    See: Michael Prior C M: THE BIBLE AND COLONIALISM: A MORAL CRITIQUE. A central focus
    of Prior’s is the history, roots, and practice of Zionism.

    Netanyahu’s particular obsessions and insanities are not a basic issue. There are few to no
    Israelis who proclaim Zionism with views which offer substantive alternatives. Only modes of expression change. It is as the late historian Gabriel Kolko once wisely observed liberal/progressive illusion that systems can be transformed because of the personal charaacteristics of a leader and his followers (THE ROOTS OF AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY, See ” Epilogue”.)

    There can be no justice as long as Zionism exists in Israel (or anywhere) as Prior shows in his
    landmark work.

    I do not have the power to eliminate Zionism and while affirming almost all of Prior’s eloquent analysis, I remain deeply indebted to analysts like Gareth Porter who provide me
    and the world with facts.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

  5. James
    March 6, 2015 at 16:51

    Very well observed and analysed.
    Netanyahu is a nut case, liar who cares for nothing and no one but self preservation.

  6. DE Teodoru
    March 6, 2015 at 14:50

    Missing in Porter’s very insightful historical analysis is the fact that Israel suffered a low IMMIGRATION and an intolerably high EMIGRATION of what a right wing journal, AZUR, called “Israel losing its minds” because the emigrants to the West are Israel’s best and brightest, trained in Israel’s excellent universities. Israel’s economy is heavily subsidized by the US and this has resulted in boom times, though somewhat artificial. But the Likud notion of GREATER ISRAEL can never be achieved so long as World Jewry chooses to remain loyal citizens of the Diasporic countries of its birth. And so, we find an endless Israeli effort to generate an “aliyah” of Diasporic Jews to Israel. More impatient is Likud– which since its start deemed the mass majority of Diasporic Jews who remain loyal to their nation of origin “Parasite Jews”– choosing to create an anti-Semitic crisis that would cause them to stampede to Israel.

    Though a Likudnik, Netanyahu realized the importance of integrating Palestinians into Israel’s economy as members of the Israeli polity in a sort of complex “two nations, one economy” deal To do this he needs to play the Shia/Sunni conflict to the hilt. Toward that end, he has to keep Israel as the only nuclear superpower (more nukes than all of Europe combined with its missiles aimed at all other Middle Eastern population concentrations per Project Daniel), able to threaten ALL Muslim countries while keeping them paralyzed because they lack the ability to defeat a massively nuclear Israel that can incinerate all their cities. That is why it fears even a puny Iranian nuclear potential: because that will cause that Shia center’s enemy, Saudi Arabia, the Sunni center to go nuclear and then, the escalating competition between them will make them escalate to where they match Israel’s nuclear capacity. In that situation, eventually it will be as if Israel never had any nuclear capacity for it can no longer incinerate the Muslims immediately but must live between them as they threaten eachother. Worst still, Israel will no longer seem a “safe place” for World Jewry and so cannot grow in population enough to expand to what Likud deems Israel’s “historic Greater Israel” borders.

    To understand the schizoid Netanyahu policies and his seeming insane perspective, one must appreciate that to achieve “historic Greater Israel” he needs Israel and the only massive nuclear power in the Middle East as well as to foment anti-Semitism in the West so that Jews stampede in fear to Israel as they did before, during and after WWII. So, his putrageous apperance before Congress not only feeds the anti-Semitism he seeks to promote a stampeding Great Aliyah of American Jews, but it does not change the fact that ANY deal Obama can conclude is fine with him because so long as Iran doesn’t go nuclear, the Sunni arabs will not go nuclear either. He is trying to have his cake and eat it too: American anti-Semitism and Obama convincing the Iranians not to go nuclear. His trip to Congress helps Obama tell Tehran: “Take what you can get now because Republicans supported by the Zionists will never offer you a deal you can swallow.” So, Netanyahu’s trip is as pro-Obama as can be for it scares the Iranians into accepting the least unbearable deal offered. I doubt Obama really is as outraged as he pretends to be over Netanyahu’s speech for it makes the Iranians think that it could never get a better deal than that offered by Obama. As a result, Israel would remain as the only regional nuclear power (greater than the whole of Europe) in the Middle East, able to threaten the Muslims as it expands to its “historic Greater Israel borders,” supplied with more Jewish immigrants due to the anti-Semitism he stokes in the West with his outrageous behavior!

    • Rob Roy
      March 7, 2015 at 19:10

      to DE Teodoru: Many interesting points. Thank you. However, Netanyahu knows that Iran isn’t making nor has any intention of making a nuclear weapon. He also knows even if Iran had such a weapon, what on earth would they do with it? Attack the fourth most powerful military in the world? What he really wants to stop is any kind of deal between the U.S. and Iran. Period. To have the Iranians and the U.S. seeing eye-to-eye on anything seems the real ‘existential threat’ to this egotist. He will do everything he can to prevent a deal going through and I hope to hell he doesn’t succeed in his sabotage. By the way, Gareth Porter should not say that Israel’s threat of a pre-emptive strike (they did bomb Iraq and Syria unfairly) “was a reckless tactic that would not cause Iran to stop working on missiles,” when in fact, Iran has never “worked on missiles,” and Mr. Porter should know that by now.

  7. Steven Masone
    March 6, 2015 at 14:16

    “In conjuring the specter of Iranian genocide against Israelis”? This is but one partial sentence that exposes your bias-blindness that the entire world clearly knows. No one is “conjuring” what Iranian leadership announces on a regular schedule concerning their intentions to annihilate Israel. I could lay more of a case towards your bias from your opinion, certainly not a news piece, exposing your sympathies towards everything anti-Israel…but that would infer I think you are a real journalist despite your Gellhorn Prize you share with the likes of Johann Hari, who kept his prize despite being outed for lying and twisting facts. Two peas in a pod! You have cheapened journalistic integrity to new lows.

    • Deschutes
      March 6, 2015 at 15:57

      Listen to you going on about Iran’s “announcements on a regular schedule to annihilate Israel”. A quick google search proves you wrong. The only guy I could find making such statements was Ahmadinejad, the wack-job leader from almost 10 years ago–and that was just political grandstanding not unlike wack-job GW Bush was doing against Iran back then. This is actually an unbiased news article given that the US mainstream media has such an extreme pro-Israel bias. It is typical of zionists to trot out the hackneyed ‘you’re anti-Israel card’ accusation as you do here if a journalist dares to question Israel foreign policy. Yawn.

      • Jay
        March 6, 2015 at 18:58

        Not even Ahmadinejad said that. He said something like “the zionist state will pass into history”.

        He did deny the Holocaust, not something the real powers in Iran do.

        • Bill
          March 6, 2015 at 20:57

          If the Zionist state passed into history, the Jewish state could coexist peaceably with its neighbors.

        • Ashen
          March 7, 2015 at 00:10

          He said that the regime in Israel must “vanish from the page of time.” It got translated in western media as him threatening to “wipe Israel off the map” and repeated endlessly. There are numerous links that clarify this (as an example, ).

          • Jay
            March 7, 2015 at 11:46


            Unfortunately your link won’t be read, or treated seriously, by the likes of Steven Masone.

            He’s made his decision about what reality is. And subscribes to a world view that is rarely contradicted by the mainstream press in the US. Various parties get away with propounding this garbage unchallenged in publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker. (At least is those two cases, once in a while the valid translation does get noted–but even here in your example it’s buried in a blog at the New York Times.)

        • JG
          March 13, 2015 at 01:34

          More correctly and rationally, “The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad).”
          A statement about the goverment, not a threat to Israel.

    • Gregory Kruse
      March 9, 2015 at 18:19

      The entire world clearly knows?

    • John P
      March 9, 2015 at 19:23

      Are you working for Mossad? Ahmadinejad made no reference to Israel, but to the ‘regime’ (the government of today) will in time be gone and commented later, like the regime of the Shah (most brutal may I say) and if I remember correctly also the GW Bush regime.
      A great danger is the unstable psyche of the Israeli right with Netanyahu, who abuse their own people for political purposes, instilling in them great fear and promoting Jewish solitude in the occupied land. Fortunately a growing number of admirable Jews have never bought this promotion, and many have seen lies and injustices behind it.

  8. Hiramo
    March 6, 2015 at 13:50

    This is not any kind of analysis. It’s a hit piece on Netanyahu. No mention of Iran’s loud and frequent threats against Israel and the United States. Everything is Bibi’s fault and the ayatollahs are innocent. Does anyone doubt that the Twelvers who run Iran and yearn for the apocalypse would hesitate to detonate a suitcase bomb in Times Square?

    • March 6, 2015 at 14:18


      • deschutes
        March 6, 2015 at 15:29

        You both sound like Netanyahu shills to me: big on accusations, zilch on factual references. “Iran’s loud and frequent threats”? Oh, really? Why is it that I never read about them anywhere in the mainstream media? Actually, Iran has really tried to mollify the unwarranted paranoia of USA over the past several years to get the nuclear agreement finalized and end sanctions. The only “loud and frequent Iran threats against USA/Israel” I ever read about come from windbag zionists like you. You remind me of the idiots who were demonizing Saddam Hussein in the run up to the Iraq war. What a bunch of losers you are.

        • Vivek Jain
          March 6, 2015 at 17:27

          How did Hussein come to power? What was his relationship to the imperial center in DC?

          Who was Khomeni? What were his connections? How did the new regime betray the revolutionary aspirations of the Iranian people?

    • Jay
      March 6, 2015 at 18:55

      There haven’t been loud and frequent Iranian threats against Israel.

      You’re quoting invented “history”.

      And basically the only time a senior Iranian clerk did say something threatening is was in reaction to “what if Israel attacked Iran with nuclear weapons.”

      So stop making things up.

    • Bill
      March 6, 2015 at 20:55

      What about the hundreds of nuclear warheads that Israel keeps adding to?
      Does Israel have a greater existential risk than Iran, or any of the other non-nuclear states in the region?

    • michael
      March 7, 2015 at 01:07

      What you need to do is give us your analysis! We know who is doing the bombing; we know who is aggressively pursuing their will over the region; We also know who was quite happy for gas to be used against Iran and his own people by Saddam; we know who ripped a democracy away from Iran in the 1950’s; we know who caused the destabilization of the whole region leaving waste, death, contamination for years to come! We have seen this destabilization bring about new terrorist threats that were never there before but now come to the surface using equipment left on the battlefield; we are quite happy for a media to give us one narrative, similar to the weapons of mass destruction lie, and keep us in a state of perpetual war, for the corporations to please their shareholders; we are quite happy to allow our governments to be corrupted by vested interests for the sake of profit! I would love to hear your analysis, it’s probably the one that the six major corporations who control the news have been putting forward!

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