Who Controls Whom?

The Obama-Netanyahu Encounter

By all reports, Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu dislike and mistrust one another. An exchange between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Obama in Cannes last November, inadvertently caught on an open microphone, revealed  the two men’s feelings for the Israeli leader. Sarkozy said he “couldn’t bear” Netanyahu and called him “a liar.” Obama responded, in apparent agreement: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

Now Obama has to deal with him again one-on-one as Netanyahu visits Washington, pressing his demand that the U.S. bomb Iran or at least give him the green light to start something that will inevitably involve the U.S.  The Israeli prepared for the meeting by hosting powerful senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in Israel last week. (McCain is the Ranking Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Graham also a member). Their visit followed February visits by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom warned Israel not to bomb, as this would compound U.S. difficulties in the region.

But McCain and Graham (who’d been prominent advocates of the war on Iraq based on lies) took Netanyahu’s side.  (“Senators Back Netanyahu in Pentagon Row” read one Israeli headline.) McCain told reporters in Jerusalem,  “There should be no daylight between America and Israel in our assessment of the [Iranian] threat. Unfortunately there clearly is some.” McCain told Netanyahu that Gen. Dempsey had, in discouraging an Israeli attack, been “serving the Iranians” and that  “there is very little doubt that Iran has so far been undeterred to get nuclear weapons.” Thus McCain rejected the conclusion of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies in 2007, reiterated in 2010, that Iran does not even have a nuclear weapons program. He rejected empirical reality in favor of Israeli histrionics, adding some of his own.

Senator Graham told reporters “obviously it’s not helpful if there is a well-publicized tension between the US and Israel. We would like to see the United States and Israel agree on a course of action that will lead us toward a goal we both share. People are giving Israel a lot of advice here lately from America. I just want to tell our Israeli friends that my advice to you is never lose control of your destiny. Never allow a situation to develop that would destroy the Jewish state.” (In other words: “Go ahead and bomb Iran; I will try to use my own political clout to insure that America will support you!”)

What an extraordinary public rejection, on foreign soil, of official U.S. policy, and deference to a foreign prime minister in conflict with a U.S. president!

Israeli Influence on U.S. Policy

It’s often charged that Israel controls U.S. foreign policy. I think this is untrue; it would not be possible for such a small country largely dependent on U.S. largess to totally control Washington’s policies towards itself, much less the world in general. If Israel truly controlled U.S. policy, Washington would endorse rather than deplore ongoing West Bank settlements. It would recognize Jerusalem as  Israel’s “eternal and indivisible capital” rather than maintaining its embassy in Tel Aviv.

The U.S. would have sided with Israel during the Suez Affair of 1956, when it attacked Egypt in collusion with Britain and France, rather than demanding it to back off. Ronald Reagan would have applauded Israel’s bombing of the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, rather than ordering the U.S. ambassador to the UN to support the resolution condemning it.

The pro-Israel position of the U.S. government is virtually unconditional (“unbreakable forever” says Joseph Biden, despite being repeatedly humiliated by Israeli officials during visits).  Hilary Clinton speaks of the “close, unshakable bond” between the two countries and pledges an “absolute commitment to Israel’s security.” Such statements of solidarity are virtually an article of faith in mainstream U.S. politics.

(Massachusetts Democrat and wannabe senator Elizabeth Warren— lionized by the Democratic liberal left, Michael Moore and even some in the Occupy movement—has just made a statement on Israel referring to the “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel, “a natural partnership resting on our mutual commitment to democracy and freedom and on our shared values.” She adds that Iran is “a significant threat to the United States,” and declares that the “United States must take the necessary steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”  This kind of slavish devotion to Israel and its policy-makers take on the world is near universal among people seeking to obtain and maintain political power in this country.)

Still, that does not mean Israel controls U.S. foreign policy. Yes, it’s true that former Israeli Prime Minister Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boasted in January 2009 about how he’d forced Condolezza Rice to instruct the U.S. UN ambassador to abstain from a vote on the Israeli attack on Gaza. “In the night between Thursday and Friday, when the secretary of state wanted to lead the vote on a ceasefire at the Security Council, we did not want her to vote in favor,” Olmert told a crowd in Ashkelon.

I said get me President Bush on the phone.’ They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn’t care. ‘I need to talk to him now.’ He got off the podium and spoke to me.  I told him the United States could not vote in favor. It cannot vote in favor of such a resolution. He immediately called the secretary of state and told her not to vote in favor. She was left shamed. A resolution that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favor.

And, yes, it’s true that Netanyahu told Haaretz in 2001,  “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in their way.”

But if Israel controlled U.S. policy, Obama would not have urged a freeze on the expansion of illegal settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Clinton would not have called the Israeli announcement of additional construction in East Jerusalem during Biden’s March 2010 visit  “insulting,” causing Israeli officials to assert that U.S.-Israeli ties were at their lowest point in years. The U.S. would not be able to force Israel, the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, to back off on some arms deals with China.

That said:  Israel, consistently the largest recipient of U.S. aid (unless one considers, as some do, the costs of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq “aid”), has generally been able to count on U.S. support when it invades Lebanon (1986, 2006), bombs Syria (2007), unleashes a blitzkrieg over Gaza (2008), etc. even though such actions are often not in what policy wonks see as “U.S. national interests.”

Congress (consisting by and large of people remarkably ignorant of the Middle East) passes resolutions in enthusiastic support; the president and secretary of state voice understanding and support even when urging restraint “on all sides.” Most importantly, Israel continues to occupy and relentlessly settle the West Bank, and strangle Gaza, over formal U.S. objections.

The ability of Israel to do as it pleases, sometimes defying Washington’s stated objections while securely drinking from the tap, puzzles many.  Surely it reflects in part the power of the Israel Lobby, which is indeed (as many charge) the unregistered “agent of a foreign power.” Its offices have been raided by the FBI (2004) and some officials have even been arrested on espionage charges.  Those arrested, who stole U.S. intelligence on Iran, while Israeli officials were pressing the U.S. to bomb Iran, were freed on legal technicalities. But the very fact that those raids occurred indicates that there are some “contradictions” between the two countries.

Israel can count on the support of evangelical Christians (about one-third of the U.S. population) to support it, practically no matter what it does.  This is not lost upon U.S. politicians, who know they will pay a price for criticizing Israeli policy.

U.S. Jews hold a wide range of viewpoints, and include many appalled at Israeli policies and opposed to Zionism (and indeed in the forefront of opposition to the occupation).  But Israel does enjoy the support of the majority of U.S. Jews, and their support can be politically significant. (While 2% of people in this country are Jewish, 48% of U.S. billionaires are Jewish, many who are also citizens of Israel and avid Zionists. It would be naïve to suppose that U.S. politicians make decisions oblivious to such hard facts.)

The fact that one supports Israel (in terms of its right to exist, or even to do so specifically as “a Jewish state”—despite the fact that a quarter of the population is non-Jewish and subject to second-class citizen status) does not, of course, mean that one will support every Israeli action.  There are self-defined Zionists (perhaps including “Christian Zionists”) who seriously differ from Israeli policies from time to time.

But the combined clout of evangelical Christian support, AIPAC lobbying efforts, neoconservative propagandizing, and Israeli government pressure (manifest, for example, in Israeli prime ministers’ appearances before jubilant evangelical Christian groups) is impressive, and does create in many minds the impression that “Israel controls U.S. policy.”

Hyping the Iranian Threat

That’s why the current confrontation between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Obama concerning Iran is so interesting.

For years, the Israeli leadership echoed by neoconservative pundits in this country like Norman Podhoretz has been urging—indeed, demanding—that the U.S. bomb Iran to destroy (on their behalf) its nuclear program. That program, everyone should know, is a legal civilian IAEA-monitored program underway in a country that is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Agreement. The demand to destroy the Iranian facilities comes from the government of a country that refuses to sign that agreement, has produced around 200 nuclear weapons itself, and is the only nuclear power in the Middle East.

The demand rests on the assertion that Iran is on the verge of producing a nuclear weapon and that should it obtain one it would unacceptably threaten Israel. Netanyahu has been saying this from the early nineties. (He’s rather like Harold Camping—the Christian radio evangelist who predicted the End Times would come in1988,  then 1994, then 2011—and just as nuts). Production of a nuke would constitute, in the sensationalistic language the Chicken Littles like to use, the “existential threat” of a “nuclear Holocaust.”

The Israelis repeatedly misquote Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials to argue that Iran (1) wants to “wipe them off the map” out of Nazi-like anti-Semitism and (2) due to the regime’s irrationality (based on religious fanaticism) it does not care about the fact that any nuclear strike on Israel would result in a massive response that would wipe out millions of Iranians.

The fact is, the Iranian president (who does not head the military) in October 2005 quoted the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s observation that—like the Soviet Union and the Shah’s regime—Israel will eventually be “erased from the page of time.”  He has since stressed that he is not anti-Semitic, and that Iran’s Jewish population (the largest outside of Israel in the Middle East) has disproportionate representation in the Iranian parliament. There are 30 synagogues in Tehran, six kosher butchers and a Jewish hospital supported by the government.

Ahmadinejad told an interviewer in 2007: “You know that according to the law in Iran, every 150,000 people have one representative in the Majlis [parliament]. But the number of the Jews is not even 20,000 people and they have a representative. We say that the life and belongings of all people should be respected.” Iranian officials have repeatedly stated willingness to accept any resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute suitable to the Jews, Christians and Muslims of the region. And they repeatedly not only deny any intention to develop nuclear weapons (despite the fact that they’re surrounded by nuclear China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and U.S. aircraft carriers bearing nukes) but note that their supreme religious leader has issued a fatwa against their production or use.

But none of this means anything to Netanyahu, who insisted in 2007, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs. . . [Ahmadinejad] is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state. . .  Iran could be the first undeterrable nuclear power. This is a Jewish problem like Hitler was a Jewish problem …” Israel’s President Shimon Peres has meanwhile compared the (imagined) Iranian nuke to “a flying concentration camp.” Always the Nazi-era imagery. This is either paranoia, shameless fear-mongering, or both.

It is simply inappropriate. Irrational. The Iranian regime is brutal, its Sharia-based laws severe. It is emphatically anti-Zionist, as is much of the world, given the devastating impact of Zionism on the indigenous people of Palestine. But Iran is not Nazi Germany.

There is no reason to suppose Iran would want to go to war with a country a thousand miles away out of sympathy for the mostly Sunni Palestinian Arab victims of Zionist occupation. The Iranian Shiites are different ethnically and religiously from the mostly Sunni Arabs. They bond more readily with Hizbollah in Lebanon, which is a Shiite organization with some Sunni and Christian allies, than they do with Hamas. In any case, Iranians certainly understand that any strike against Israel would kill Muslims along with Jews. And again, there is that fatwa against the use of nuclear weapons. Iran has not attacked any nation for hundreds of years. The entire case Netanyahu presents is ridiculous.

Presidents Ignore U.S. Intelligence

Still, two presidents in a row have failed to challenge and refute it. Bush and Cheney were upset by the 2007 NIE; Cheney’s office seems to have delayed its publication for a year. When the NIE report “strained U.S.-Israeli ties,” Bush practically apologized for it in his December 2007 visit to Israel, saying he didn’t agree with it and that anyway it “didn’t change anything.” (As though the inattentive cowboy president had greater insight than all his intelligence agencies, speaking with one voice!)

Similarly, Obama has not come out publically, saying, “Look, my intelligence sources assure me that there is no evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapons program. And certainly no short-term threat to Israel, which as we know, has 200 nuclear weapons itself. We don’t like the Iranian government, and have rejected its diplomatic overtures because we would like to see it fall.

“But we realize that Iran is a complicated society with a complex political structure, and that Ahmadinejad far from being a Hitler does not even control the military. That’s controlled by the mullahs, ultimately by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei who has issued a religious edict banning the production of nuclear weapons. And Ahmadinejad’s party has suffered a big setback in the recent election in Iran.

“We see no advantage to bombing Iran and provoking it to attack our massive embassy complex in Iraq or retaliate against us or Israel using whatever conventional forces are at its disposal. So we counsel our Israeli friends to stop hyping what we believe to be a non-existent threat. And we ask you to stop intervening in U.S. politics to build the case for an unnecessary war with horrible likely repercussions.”

No, he cannot say such things.

Instead he must maintain the line: “no options off the table” while dispatching top officials to Israel to quietly discourage an Israeli attack on Iran. He must declare, “I don’t bluff” in a message to Israel and Iran—and the U.S. political circus— that he’s both strong and rational (he won’t threaten an attack he can’t successfully pull off, especially at the behest of another).

So here comes Netanyahu, armed with Congressional political support,  to meet with Obama, demanding that either the U.S. bomb soon or Israel will do it. Timing is important because (1) following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (incomplete though it has been) the authorities in that country will be powerless to shoot down Israeli aircraft flying through their airspace, while the U.S. won’t have to take any responsibility for allowing that; and (2) before the November election Obama is politically vulnerable and will not want to appear weak or anything but supportive of Israel. In U.S. political discourse, the latter translates as “anti-Semitism.”

Netanyahu wants the U.S. to establish a “red line” requiring the bombing campaign he so keenly craves. That red line is not any evidence that Iran plans or wants to produce nuclear weapons. Rather, it’s the point at which Iran theoretically could (like Japan and Brazil) quickly produce nuclear weapons.

The argument is: the Iranians (unique in the world!) do not deserve the right to have even a civilian program, because they are so hostile to Israel. They must be punished for even trying to do what 30 other countries do, and what successive U.S. administrations urged Iran itself to do, with U.S. assistance, while the pro-U.S., pro-Israel Shah was in power in the 1970s!

Armenia, bordering Iran, produces 45% of its energy through nuclear power. Israel has no problem with that! But Iran must not continue its limited, closely monitored enrichment program…because, Netanyahu declares, this threatens Israel and the survival of the Jewish people.

If Obama caves in, agreeing to take joint action to prevent a sovereign state to do what international law permits—to produce nuclear energy for civilian purposes—it will show

who’s boss and settle this question of who controls whom.


A fine, exemplary specimen of war-monger’s art: James Phillips of the right-wing war-mongering Heritage Foundation in a March 2 piece entitled “The Obama–Netanyahu Summit: Time to Present a Common Front Against Iran.”

Phillips notes the “increasingly public spat” between Obama and Netanyahu and says the “two leaders need to forge a common understanding of how best to defuse Iran’s ticking nuclear time bomb…”

How typical! Just keep repeating the lie and people will believe it.

“The two leaders,” writes Phillips, “who reportedly have a poor personal chemistry, also have clashing worldviews. Netanyahu understandably perceives the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and is determined to prevent another Holocaust—through military means if necessary. President Obama, who has consistently underestimated the ideologically based hostility of Iran’s Islamist dictatorship, puts more faith in diplomacy backed by sanctions. But the Obama Administration has exhibited a much weaker sense of urgency on the need to deal decisively with the growing potential threat (Italics added).”

So Netanyahu’s “worldview” is realistic, Obama’s naïve and appeasement oriented. No reference here to the NIEs, the unanimous opinion of the U.S. intelligence community, and the repeated IAEA assessments that Iran is not diverting nuclear fuel for military purposes.

Although sanctions have imposed an increasingly steep price on Tehran, sanctions alone are unlikely to halt Iran’s nuclear push any more than they halted North Korea’s. .. Obama Administration remains committed to its failed engagement strategy. . .

Again the (military) “nuclear push” merely posited, without evidence. And what is Obama’s “failure” but the failure to force the suspension of the civilian program, or to overthrow the Iranian regime, as Israel so urgently demands?

To make matters worse, the Secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have also publicly warned against an Israeli military strike. This counterproductive behavior only reduces the chances of resolving the problem satisfactorily through diplomacy, because it reduces international leverage on Tehran.

Poppycock.  The Bomb Iran advocates are not interested in diplomacy. They see it as a threat to their objective of regime change. “We don’t negotiate with evil,” Cheney once said, having indignantly rejected a conciliatory overture from Iran in 2003, “we defeat it.” How is it “counterproductive” to discourage an Israeli attack? Counterproductive towards what worthy ends?

And why the disparagement of the highest level of U.S. professional military opinion as just “making things worse”?

The vicious illogic surrounding this issue is frightening. You’d think that people like Phillips, a supporter of the Iraq invasion, would be so discredited at this point that they’d slink off the stage in shame. But no, they continue to traffic in lies, hell-bent on transforming the Middle East to the advantage of Israel.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.