Showdown on Capitol Hill

The stakes are high in Netanyahu’s bid to force a change in US foreign policy after the nuclear deal with Iran. Can he succeed, asks URI AVNERY. This article first appeared as a feature in the Morning Star 30/11/2013

Angry noises from Israel this week over the deal on Iranian nuclear power are not just about a fight between Israel and the US.

Nor are we talking merely of a fight between the White House and Congress. This is also a battle between intellectual titans.

On one side the two renowned professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. On the other, the towering international figure of Noam Chomsky.

Does the dog wag the tail, or does the tail wag the dog?

Six years ago the two professors shocked the US and Israel with a book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, in which they asserted that US foreign policy is – at least in the Middle East – controlled by Israel.

This is diametrically opposed to the view of Noam Chomsky that Israel is a US pawn, used by US imperialism as an instrument to promote its interests.

I said at the time that both were right – this is a unique dog-tail relationship.

Theories like these can seldom be put to a laboratory test. But this one can.

It’s happening now. Between Israel and the US a crisis has developed.

It’s about the putative Iranian nuclear bomb. US President Barack Obama is determined to avert a military showdown. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to prevent a compromise.

For Netanyahu, the Iranians’ alleged nuclear designs have become a defining issue, even an obsession.

He talks about it incessantly. He has even declared that it is an “existential” threat to Israel and poses the possibility of a second Holocaust. Last year he made an exhibition of himself at the UN general assembly with his childish drawing of a bomb.

Cynics say this is only a trick, a successful gimmick to divert the world’s attention away from Palestine. And indeed, for years now the Israeli policy of occupation and settlements has been advancing quietly, away from the limelight.

But in politics a gimmick can serve several purposes at once. Netanyahu is serious about the Iranian bomb.

The proof is that on this issue he’s ready to do something no Israeli prime minister has done before – endanger Israeli-US relations.

This is a momentous decision. Israel is dependent on the US in almost every respect. Washington pays Israel a yearly tribute of at least $3 billion (£1.8bn), and in fact much more.

It gives us state-of-the-art military equipment. Its veto protects us from UN security council censure whatever we do.

We have no other unconditional friend in the world, except perhaps the Fiji islands.

If there’s one thing on which practically all Israelis agree it is this. A break with the US is unthinkable. To use a Hebrew expression much loved by Netanyahu, it is “the rock of our existence.”

So what does he think he’s doing?

Netanyahu was brought up in the US. He went to school and university there. It’s where he started his career.

He doesn’t need advisers on US affairs. He considers himself the smartest expert of all.

He’s no fool or adventurer. He bases himself on solid assessments. He believes he is able to win this fight.

You could say he’s an adherent of the Walt-Mearsheimer doctrine.

His present moves are based on the judgement that in a straight confrontation between Congress and the White House, Congress will win. Obama, already bloodied by other issues, will be beaten – maybe even destroyed.

Netanyahu was wrong the last time he tried something like this. During the last presidential elections he openly supported Mitt Romney. The Republicans, he felt, were bound to win.

Casino baron Sheldon Adelson poured money into their campaign while maintaining an Israeli mass-circulation daily for the sole purpose of supporting Netanyahu.

Romney couldn’t lose. But he did.

This should have been a lesson for Netanyahu, but he didn’t absorb it. He is now playing the same game but for vastly higher stakes.

The pro-Israel lobby Aipac is marshalling its forces on Capitol Hill. It’s an impressive show.

Senator after senator, representative after representative comes forward to support the Israeli government against their own president.

The same people who jumped up and down like string-puppets when Netanyahu made his last speech before Congress try to outdo each other in assertions of undying loyalty to Israel.

This is an exhibition of shamelessness. Several senators declare publicly that they have been briefed by the Israeli intelligence services.

This would be unthinkable with any other country. Say Ireland or Italy, where many US citizens trace their roots.

Some Israeli commentators have even joked that Netanyahu believes in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous tract fabricated by Russia’s tsarist secret police. It purported to expose a sinister Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. A century later Netanyahu seems to think he controls the US.

The senators and representatives involved are no fools – not all of them, in any case. They have a clear purpose – to get re-elected.

Aipac has demonstrated, in several test cases, that it can unseat any senator or rep who does not toe the Israeli line.

Politicians prefer humiliating themselves to political suicide. No kamikaze pilots in Congress.

It is difficult to know how far the White House is cowed by this development.

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry know that US public opinion is dead set against any new war in the Middle East.

Compromise with Iran is in the air. This is supported by almost all world powers. Even France’s tantrums had no clear purpose except to throw its supposed weight around.

President Francois Hollande was received in Israel this week like the harbinger of the messiah, incidentally. You could close your eyes and be back in the good old pre-de Gaulle days when France armed Israel, supplied it with its military atomic reactor and the two countries went on jolly escapades together like the disastrous Suez invasion of 1956.

But if Obama and Kerry hold fast, can Congress impose an opposite policy on Iran? Could this turn into the most serious constitutional crisis in US history?

Alongside it all Kerry is still trying to impose on Netanyahu a peace with Palestine that he doesn’t want. He did succeed in pushing the premier into “final status negotiations” – the word “peace” is taboo – but nobody in Israel or Palestine believes anything will come of it.

Unless the White House puts the whole might of the US behind it, and that seems more than unlikely.

Kerry allots nine months to the endeavour, as if it were a normal pregnancy. The chance of a baby at the end is, however, practically nil. In the first three months the sides have not progressed one step.

So, who will win? Obama or Netanyahu? Chomsky or Walt/Mearsheimer?

Time will tell. In the meantime, place your bets.

Uri Avnery is a former member of the Knesset and a founder of Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom. He blogs at http://www.avnery-news.co.il.


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