In Possible U.S.-Iran Conflict, Netanyahu Leaves the Jews With No Alibi

For us it's all in the family, but most of the world sees a brash Israeli leader backed by a powerful lobby and a casino magnate's billions, thumbing his nose at the president.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Netanyahu speaks before Congress, March 3, 2015.
Netanyahu speaks before Congress, March 3, 2015.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

If anyone ever decides to make a movie of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' the opening scene is already done. An Israeli prime minister bewitching hundreds of American Congress members who cheer him on as if he is their Caesar and they are his legions; a few short miles away, meanwhile, the leader of the free world and sole superpower sits in the White House, helplessly seething, pretending to be otherwise engaged, while his aides studiously ignore his very public humiliation.

For most Israelis and many Americans, of course, the picture is completely different: for us, the extraordinary scene that unfolded in Congress this week is but a manifestation – extreme, perhaps, but representative nonetheless – of the special if not unique relationship between Israel and the United States. These exceptional ties may include sharp disagreements from time to time, but they’re all in the family, or “mispokha,” as Benjamin Netanyahu described it this week.

Most of the world, however, finds it difficult to appreciate the Yiddishkeit: They see a brash Jewish leader, backed by battalions of loyal AIPAC lobbyists and one casino magnate with billions of dollars to spare, thumbing his nose at the U.S. president and openly trying to derail his efforts to achieve a nuclear deal with Tehran, which most of the world supports. Netanyahu’s success, the conventional wisdom goes, could ultimately lead to war.

This is exactly the area covered by Protocol VII of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious anti-Semitic forgery created in Czarist Russia at the turn of the last century. “We must create ferments, discords and hostility” the faked elders say “under the mask of honesty and compliancy.” The purpose is to manipulate countries to serve Jewish interests and to keep them occupied with each other while Jews continue to pursue their conspiracy to control the world.

The claim that Jews are warmongers has served anti-Semites throughout history, but in the past century, their efforts have been aided by the forged Protocols. The pogromist White Army in the Russian Civil War discovered a copy of the Protocols among the remains of the Czarina Alexandra who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, viewing it as conclusive proof that it was the Jews who dragged Imperial Russia into the First World War in order to pave the way for their Communist Revolution. When Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer published their book on the Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy 90 years later, many of their critics accused them of drawing inspiration from the discredited Protocols.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s most controversial claim was that Israel and its lobby, in collaboration with their neo-conservative stooges in Washington, had pushed American and George Bush to launch the 2003 war in Iraq. Among others, they cite an article published by Netanyahu in the Wall Street Journal in September 2002, entitled “The Case for Toppling Saddam Hussein.” The Iraqi dictator, Netanyahu claimed, is “feverishly trying to acquire nuclear weapons.” He is doing so with “centrifuges the size of washing machines that can be hidden throughout the country – and Iraq is a very big country.” And lest no one be mistaken what he was preaching, Netanyahu added that “even free and unfettered inspections will not uncover these portable manufacturing sites of mass death.”

But what was almost a footnote in Walt and Mearsheimer’s book assumed center stage in the American media this week. The video highlights of Netanyahu’s testimony to a Congressional committee two weeks before the WSJ article was published were broadcast over and over before and after Netanyahu’s address. “There is no question whatsoever,” Netanyahu says there with complete and utter self-confidence, as he waves his arms resolutely and Ron Dermer peeks from behind his shoulders “that Saddam is seeking and working and is advancing towards the production of nuclear weapons. No question whatsoever.”

“Spoiler alert,” is the caustic response of MSNBC’s prime time anchor Rachel Maddow, who was one of many to screen the clip. “We preempted and invaded Iraq and none of the nonsense you just heard about Iraq turned out be true.” After 13 years, he’s back, she added, with another “end of the world speech” – but this time the target is Iran.

Israel and the lobby succeeded in extricating themselves from Walt and Mearsheimer’s accusation of having led the US to the ultimately ill-fated and unpopular Iraq war mainly by virtue of two main factors: First, contrary to the public testimony of Netanyahu, who was a private citizen at the time, official Israel expressed its support for the war, in as much as it did, behind closed doors and in secret conversations, as befits two governments whose leaders, Bush and Ariel Sharon, started to get along famously in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The second factor is that the Bush administration included several senior non-Jewish figures, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who did not need Netanyahu’s prodding in order to seek the dismantling of Saddam’s regime. Israel, in other words, functioned as a corroborating witness, at most.

But if the current nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran end in failure, as Netanyahu seems to want, and deteriorate from there to armed confrontation, Israel won’t have an alibi. This time Netanyahu is not a private citizen but an Israeli prime minister, claiming to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish people, not in any discrete back room talks but in a rare joint session of Congress, in one of the most widely scrutinized speeches in modern history. And contrary to the Bush administration, if the Obama administration is compelled to take military action against Iran or to back an Israeli attack that it does not want, it will do so kicking, screaming, bearing a grudge and pointing a finger at the pyromaniac who lit the fuse that caused the Middle East to explode.

Netanyahu and his explainers protest that he had no intention of pushing America to war, but on the contrary, to prod it into making “a better deal,” as he told Congress. “I brought a practical alternative to a bad deal with Iran,” he said upon his return. The “alternative” debate might be debated but practical? Don’t make Netanyahu laugh. He and his aides know full well that from the moment the Israeli prime minister publicly demanded “more restrictions” on Iran that won’t be lifted “for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world,” he killed off any chance that such changes will be accepted or even discussed.

If Netanyahu had sincerely wanted to submit “practical alternatives” he should have raised them in the intimate bilateral dialogue that he no longer enjoys. Once he made his demands into a public banner, he guaranteed they would end up as no more than hot air; he used the same tactic when he repeatedly clamored for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, kn
owing full well that the louder he cried the less chances there were of them agreeing.

Netanyahu’s aides went on to claim that the prime minister proved his moderation and pragmatism by deleting his demand for the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including all of its centrifuges. They conveniently ignored the fact only 24 hours earlier, these were the exact marching orders handed down for 16,000 AIPAC delegates to take to Capitol Hill on their annual day of lobbying: zero infrastructure and zero centrifuges, period. As they did when they ignored AIPAC leaders in arranging John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu in the first place, the prime minister’s office once again undercut their loyal lobbyists without giving it a second thought.

In the first few hours after the speech it seemed that Netanyahu had succeeded in energizing his Republican loyalists and Democratic supporters into restarting efforts to legislate new sanctions and to increase Senate supervision over the nuclear talks. At week’s end, the momentum appeared to be waning, though proponents are promising to renew them later this month. If any one of these laws succeeds in garnering a veto-proof majority, they could achieve one of two targets: either accelerate the talks and spur the sides to reach an agreement, against Netanyahu’s wishes, or break up the talks but in a way that leaves Tehran with a distinct advantage – with a ready-made defendant, more than enough evidence to indict, and an eagerly given politically motivated confession owning up to his own responsibility. In the court of international public opinion, a quick, guilty verdict is assured.

Netanyahu’s speech may have been a brilliant PR ploy and could have possibly yielded some electoral gains, though the evidence for that right now isn’t entirely convincing. Looked at in any other way, the speech was completely useless, at best, potentially damaging and dangerous, at less than best. Netanyahu further undermined his already degraded relations with the administration, seriously corroded, despite his protestations, the support for Israel inside the Democratic Party, embarrassed the Jewish community and created an unhealthy conflict of loyalties for many Jews between him and their president.

And if the U.S. and Iran find themselves in an escalating conflict that leads to armed confrontation, Netanyahu, Israel and the Jewish people will find themselves in the dock, cast in a central role in a new chapter in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but one which will be much harder to refute. As a student of Jewish history, this seems to be Netanyahu’s most reckless gamble of all.

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