How Netanyahu Outsmarted Himself

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brash intervention into U.S. politics to frighten Americans about Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear bomb created an unintended dynamic that led to the recent Iran agreement and now to a historic strain on U.S.-Israeli relations, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Those paying attention both to the Israeli government’s implacable opposition against the agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program and to the issue of Iran’s other activity in the Middle East might take note of some background that several analysts, including Shibley Telhami and Aaron David Miller, have noted: that Israeli agitation about the Iranian nuclear program was a principal impetus for negotiating the agreement on that subject that was finalized in Vienna last month.

Miller goes so far as to suggest (presumably with tongue firmly in cheek) that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ought to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism that motivated other governments to negotiate the deal that he now is doing his utmost to shoot down.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli official and current director of the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in an especially insightful article that explains positions on these issues both of Netanyahu’s government and of other Israeli political leaders, adds additional detail to this background. He notes that it was Israel’s government that had insisted at least as strongly as anyone that the nuclear file must be dealt with first and dealt with separately, without talking to the Iranians about regional issues or anything else.

That earlier Israeli position directly contradicts, of course, current complaints from Netanyahu’s government and other opponents of the agreement that the deal does not address non-nuclear issues of Iranian policy and behavior, things the agreement never was intended to address. But this contradiction is no more nonsensical than the overall set of Israeli government positions on the nuclear issue if those positions are taken at face value.

The positions have included incessantly ringing an alarm bell about how Iran’s nuclear program could lead to a weapon and then trying to destroy the very measures designed to ensure that the program does not lead to a weapon. Things make sense, from the Israeli government’s point of view, only if they are not taken at face value.

An objective of that government, rather than achieving a nuclear agreement, has been instead to avoid any agreements with Iran, on nuclear matters or anything else. A calculation that there could be plenty of agitation on the nuclear issue without any agreement emerging was by no means crazy. U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, after all, was virtually nonexistent as recently as three years ago.

Serious questions were being raised elsewhere about whether, when U.S. and Iranian diplomats did sit down to talk, there would be enough bargaining space to reach an agreement on the nuclear question. And even if a deal started to emerge, the Israeli government still would have a traditional and trusty weapon, its political lobby in the United States, to shoot it down.

Meanwhile all that agitation about a nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapon served a purpose somewhat akin to the neocon agitation a decade earlier about the nonexistent Iraqi nuclear weapons: it helped to scare people to get them in line to achieve other objectives. Nuclear weapons are inherently scary and therefore useful for that sort of thing, even when they are nonexistent.

In the case of Iraq, the neocon objective was to get public support for launching an offensive war. In the case of Iran an Israeli objective is to get people to be deathly afraid of Iran and to view the Middle East the way Israel wants them to view it: as a region in which Iran is the source of instability and evil, in which Iran thus should only be shunned and never partnered, and in which Israel is the most reliable and effective partner for anyone who wants to be on the side of good against evil, and especially for the United States.

Now it appears that the calculation about being able to agitate without bringing about an agreement on the nuclear issue, though not crazy, was mistaken. Some of the reasons for the miscalculation may have been ones that many others also might have had a hard time anticipating, including Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the Iranian presidential election of 2013, the degree of unity among the P5+1 during the negotiations, and the skill and determination with which President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry tackled the task of achieving a readily defensible agreement.

Probably also involved, and this was a reason for some of the mistaken analysis elsewhere about insufficient bargaining space, was a misbelief that Iran really is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and thus never would make the concessions necessary to close off paths to such weapons. Because of the tendency of people to come to believe their own rhetoric when it is repeated enough, this misbelief probably had become entrenched in Israeli government circles.

Whatever the underlying reasons for any miscalculation, Netanyahu and his government now face the reality of a negotiated agreement. An even more uncomfortable thought for them is that their own endless agitation on the nuclear issue, accompanied by their saber-rattling about what Israel might do militarily against Iran, helped to bring that agreement about.

Possibly the discomfort of having scored an own goal is part of what has brought their opposition to the agreement to such a feverish pitch. They are using the trusty weapon of the lobby to make one last attempt to make an agreement go away, but there already are signs of their thinking moving on to a Plan B of how to subvert the agreement, or at least to keep it from leading to any more extensive dealings with Iran, if the U.S. Congress does not kill it in September.

That gets to what must be an even more discomfiting thought for Netanyahu’s government, which is that their politicking and propagandizing around the nuclear issue may be backfiring not just in the sense of a nuclear agreement having been reached but also in the sense of moving regional alignments and especially the role of the United States in directions they don’t want. This involves not only partial rehabilitation of Iran as a regional player but also disgust in the United States that raises new questions and doubts among Americans about the extraordinary U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Indeed, this latter concern has been a theme of much criticism of Netanyahu by his Israeli political opponents, who charge him with mishandling relations with the United States. Levy probably is correct, however, that no major change in that relationship is imminent because “the role of money in U.S. politics guarantees against that, and anyway, Obama and the Democrats’ commitment to Israel’s well-being and security is sincere, Bibi or no Bibi.”

But this entire episode may, over the longer term and in combination with other concerns and controversies, at least marginally weaken the edifice that is the unusual U.S.-Israeli relationship. Levy makes the point well:

“A process is in motion, a growing distancing between the Jewish communities of America and Israel, born of tensions between American Jewish liberalism and Israel’s denial of basic freedoms for Palestinians and an overall drift toward greater extremism and intolerance. It is a process that has been significantly accelerated by Netanyahu’s brash and bullying foray into congressional politics. Netanyahu is unlikely to pay an immediate political price at home, but in the arc of Israel-U.S. relations, it is a moment that will echo long after the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are forgotten.”

Those who wish for the United States to be able to pursue its own interests in the Middle East in a more flexible and effective manner than it has been able to hitherto can view such a process as an offsetting advantage of Netanyahu’s bullying.

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.)

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17 comments for “How Netanyahu Outsmarted Himself

  1. Mike Keleher
    August 22, 2015 at 9:16 am

    American Jews, the money and quotidian political, media, and financial power behind the broader Zionist lobby, are 2.5% of the population.

    They have far, far too much power over the rest of us, and crying ‘antisemite’ is really about the obfuscation of that wildly disproportionate power.

    I’m beyond tired of it.

  2. Aarky
    August 19, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    One of Obama’s biggest mistakes was not saying it LOUD and OFTEN, “Iran is not working on Nukes”. Leon Panetta, as head of the CIA, only said it once. This has allowed the Israeli Agents in Congress and at AIPAC to constantly bombard the US public with the constant lie, that Iran is working or already has nuclear weapons. I have US members of Congress repeat the talking points/lies from AIPAC, even as they know from the US intelligence reports that Iran is not/has not worked on nuclear weapons. To get a truthful report, look up Iranian nuclear program at Wikipedia.

  3. gh
    August 19, 2015 at 5:40 am

    Ok dear autor… so you want to tell us that Iran invested billions into the development of ICBM’s just for fun? Or to sling around a few kg of Dynamite?

    Get away. Even the stupidest Mullah-supporter can do better than this. When you lie, it should at least faintly resemble something logical.

    • Stefan
      August 19, 2015 at 6:41 am

      Countries with ICBM’s seem to be give the Master(Israel) and the Blaster(USA) cold feet as to go too far in attacking countries (covertly and overtly).

      Israel calls its undeclared rogue nuclear arsenal and its ICBMs “deterrents”.

      In the face of decades of threats from Israel and USA projected at Iran, it would be foolish not to acquire ICBMs.

      Further more whether Iran developes ICBMs or not, is no business of US and Israel – because when it comes to nuclear weapons, Israel is the no. 1 rogue nation on earth.

      With the constant threats from Israel (based on outright lies and fabrications, as Gareth Porther has shown in his book: “Manufactured Crisis”) to “turn Iran into glass” – Iran has all the right in the world to create deterrents.

    • Aarky
      August 19, 2015 at 5:16 pm

      As an AIPAC troll, your shift started early.

  4. JC
    August 18, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Just Bibi being Bibi, To think of it,, he and Mitt Romney were college roommates at one time. Scary.

  5. Garrett
    August 18, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Correct me if I am wrong. Israeli and US belligerence have caused Russia, China and Iran to sign a mutual protection agreement.

    • gh
      August 19, 2015 at 5:42 am

      Your imagination is quite rich… there is no such agreement to be found anywhere.

      Russians and Chinese know very well that Iran is not their friend, but a covert “bad cop” of MI6 and CIA. Thus they will wait with such agreements until the Mullahstan gets cleaned out.

      • Aarky
        August 19, 2015 at 5:13 pm

        I knew there would be AIPAC trolls pop up here. Just this week the Russian missile company that makes the S-300 anti aircraft missiles signed a deal to provide advanced missiles to Iran. Of course Netanyahu had a hissy fit. Should we tell him that these are defensive in nature and would be used against Israeli jets if he was stupid enough to order an attack.

  6. Gregory Kruse
    August 18, 2015 at 8:33 am

    It should be mentioned that Israel has a nuclear arsenal and Iran has none. Netanyahu’s squawking has served to draw more attention to that.

  7. August 18, 2015 at 12:57 am

    An excellent article again by Professor Pillar!

    I look forward to a day that our nation foreign policy is untied from the dark influence of Israeli Lobby. The existing chain has been liable for the loss of many men and women who fought the criminal war. Treasures went to waste for an unreliable “ally.” Indeed, the war in Iraq was fought for Israel, creating millions of foes for our people. The Israeli Prime Minister is the greatest threat to Israel.

    Israel has not supported even once President Obama, the man who regrettably offered Israel more financial and military assistance than his predecessors.

    Americans did not seek independence from Britain only to lose it to Israel.

    • Aarky
      August 19, 2015 at 5:08 pm

      Israel has received $40 billion in free money from Uncle Sugar over the last ten years and agreements have already been made to give them $45 billion over the next ten years, plus many more billions have been made by this gigantic con. All the Jewish run hedge funds bought oil long and then two weeks later Bibi would wave the saber. Ehud Barak, the last Defense Minister, became a millionaire with his side job as a consultant to a hedge fund.

  8. toby
    August 17, 2015 at 10:20 pm

    We have allowed the US representatives to ignore the US Constitution First Amendment Establishment Clause and make laws that benefit the Jewish state and sow fear and discord of Muslims.

    I’m tired of building the Jewish religious country, expanding it with US tax money while we destroy secular societies and subject Christians to genocide.

  9. Theodora Crawford
    August 17, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    Netanyahu’s attempts to control US foreign policy is increasingly destructive and precludes hopes for peace in the Middle East. We need to strive for peaceful negotiated agreements with all countries, especially Iran (their young people crave our friendship)! Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has been atrocious and it’s getting worse. Again, incurring the aversion of our former allies, we are shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot. Sadly, antisemitism is growing and Netanyahu is to blame!

    • N Dalton
      August 18, 2015 at 5:06 am

      . . . . and Netanyahu is to blame! Indeed.

      It`s not just Israel’s treatment of Palestinians these disgusting traitors in Congress ignore.

      There`s dual national citizenship – the Zionist controlled media,the powerful Zionist lobbies as well as the vile and abhorrent Jewish Disloyalty to these US -one must be reminded of !

      http://buchanan.org/blog/obama-v-bibi-fight-to-the-finish-16336

  10. Ethan Allen
    August 17, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    It’s good to see Prof. Pillar’s informed commentary here at ConsortiumNews.
    His reference to Daniel Levy’s succinct observation saying….

    But this entire episode may, over the longer term and in combination with other concerns and controversies, at least marginally weaken the edifice that is the unusual U.S.-Israeli relationship. Levy makes the point well:

    “A process is in motion, a growing distancing between the Jewish communities of America and Israel, born of tensions between American Jewish liberalism and Israel’s denial of basic freedoms for Palestinians and an overall drift toward greater extremism and intolerance. It is a process that has been significantly accelerated by Netanyahu’s brash and bullying foray into congressional politics. Netanyahu is unlikely to pay an immediate political price at home, but in the arc of Israel-U.S. relations, it is a moment that will echo long after the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are forgotten.”

    As Usual,
    EA

    • Chet Roman
      August 17, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      “a growing distancing between the Jooish communities of America and Israel”

      Excellent comment. I would say an even more important consequence of Netanyahu and the various zionist/neocon tentacles publicly attempting to sink the agreement with Iran and, as the president has stated, push the U.S. into an inevitable war with Iran is goyim America’s awakening to the fact that Israel is more a liability than an ally.

      In the past the Lobby has been acting behind closed doors; bribing, intimidating and corrupting our political system. As former AIPAC employee, Steve Rosen, told M.J. Rosenberg when he worked for AIPAC: “A lobby is a nightflower. It thrives in the dark & shrivels up in the sunlight.”

      They continue to try to keep their activities away from public scrutiny: “Allies should work out their differences privately,” explained Lee Rosenberg, the former president of AIPAC who is a former member of Obama’s finance committee. Unfortunately for them, Netanyahu has jumped the shark.

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