Netanyahu’s New Middle East Equations: Iraq=Iran and Hamas=Al-Qaida + ISIS

8 takeaways from the PM’s interviews on NBC and NPR, including the revival of Menachem Begin’s famous blessing on the Iran-Iraq War: I wish both sides success.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on NBC's Meet the Press, June 22, 2014.Credit: Screenshot
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

1. THIRD DEGREE: The tone and content of the first question directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his interview with National Public Radio’s Morning Edition may have taken him by surprise. Interviewer Steven Inskeep demanded to know whether Israel can provide unequivocal corroboration of its claim that Hamas is behind the kidnappings of the three Jewish yeshiva students near Hebron: “You’ve said you have proof that Hamas is behind the kidnappings and Israelis as well as Palestinians have been saying – ok, show us the evidence. Can you describe the evidence you have?” His follow up question was even more insistent: “Are these telephone intercepts? Is it human intelligence? What do you have?”

2. NO PAPER TRAIL: Judging solely by Netanyahu’s responses to these questions, Israel seems to know for certain that the perpetrators were “members of Hamas” but lacks evidence that will link them to higher echelons of the organization.

“We’ve pretty much figured out” who is behind the kidnappings, Netanyahu said. “These are Hamas members in the Hebron area,” he added, pointedly refraining from alleging that the kidnaping was carried out on direct orders of higher ups. Instead, Netanyahu only said that “Hamas is calling for kidnappings every day – from Gaza, from Turkey, from Qatar, from the West Bank itself,” as if this was a “slam dunk” in and of itself, as former CIA director George Tenet once famously said.

Netanyahu promised to make Israel’s proof public “as soon as the investigation is complete.” At this point, it’s probably safe to assume that the evidence will be ambiguous enough so that Netanyahu and the Israeli public will be able to claim that they’ve made their case, while their critics cry foul and lambast what they will undoubtedly describe as Israel’s “deception.”

3. BESTIES: Inskeep’s third question was also instructive: After noting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ criticism of the kidnapping and PA cooperation with Israel, he continued: “You've said it's good that he made that statement but that you also want action. Can you name specific cooperation that Abbas has withheld?”

Inskeep went on to actually warn Netanyahu that “If you press too hard Prime Minister, and end up weakening or somehow deposing Mahmoud Abbas, who is the closest thing you have to a friend on that side, will it be destructive to Israel's interests?”

4. DOTH PROTEST: While distancing himself from any intention of toppling Abbas, Netanyahu denied that Israel is engaging in “collective punishment” and said that Israeli forces aim to “minimize friction” with the Palestinian population. But he added that Israeli forces had uncovered weapons in their search and “we’re not dealing with Mother Theresas here.”

The point is that Netanyahu was not asked about collective punishment. He volunteered the denial. From which one can deduce that he is aware of a rising tide of international criticism and claims to the contrary.

5. AXIS OF EVIL REDUX: Netanyahu said that the “critical thing” is for Abbas to break up the Palestinian unity government. In doing so, Netanyahu introduced a new hasbara line that equates Hamas with Al-Qaida as well as with the Sunni ISIS forces currently gaining ground and power in Syria and Iraq. Blending Hamas with the jihadists in Iraq, Netanyahu assumes, is the best way to taint the Palestinian organization and cast it as an enemy of America, while placing Israel as a force that is confronting the extremists on America’s behalf and possibly in its stead.

“Hamas is like the Islamist movements that you see in Syria and in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East - it is committed to a savagery that not only includes the demise of the State of Israel, but actually the establishment of these Islamist realms — unforgiving violent realms — that oppose peace.”

Netanyahu said that Israel was fighting Hamas “Just as you're fighting Al-Qaida everywhere you can. I think that if you are trying to make peace you can't have a unity pact with Al-Qaeda — in this case with Hamas.”

6. LET THEM BLEED: Asked whether the ISIS onslaught poses “an existential threat” to Israel, Netanyahu portrayed the conflict as a “battle between radical Shi'ites led by Iran and radical Sunnis led by ISIS and Al-Qaida and the like.” Then he delivered his pre-planned punch line: “My view is that when your enemies fight each other, you don’t strengthen either one of them, you weaken both. You do what you need to do to counter ISIS in Iraq but you do not allow Iran to dominate Iraq as it has dominated Lebanon and Syria.”

From which one can deduce that:

1. Netanyahu views the conflict in Iraq in much the same way that many Israelis saw the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980’s or as then Prime Minister Menachem Begin once said: “I wish both sides success”

2. Nonetheless, Netanyahu would support a U.S. military strike on ISIS forces in Iraq.

3. Netanyahu is adamantly opposed to American-Iranian collaboration in Iraq or to any U.S. effort to maintain the status quo and keep current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in power. “Everyone knows that the Iraqi government is dominated by Iran and that Maliki is very much dominated by Iran.”

7. KEEPING MUM: Nonetheless, when he’s done offering pretty specific advice, Netanyahu said: “It’s a complicated balancing act but I’m not going to give advice, especially not in public.”

8. FORGET ME NOT: In both his interviews to NBC and NPR in recent days, Netanyahu insisted on pivoting the discussion to the “greatest danger of all,” which is the Iranian nuclear threat and which, contrary to all the other dangers, “could kill millions.” Obviously Netanyahu is concerned that American public opinion will lose sight of the need to contain Iran, a suspicion confirmed perhaps by the fact that in both interviews he was not asked about the Iranian nuclear issue and was forced to drive home the issue almost by force. “I am afraid we’re out of time,” Inskeep said as Netanyahu’s dire warnings were heard fading in the background. 

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