Paul Pillar

The Real Subject of Netanyahu's Congressional Spectacle (It Isn't Nukes)

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Benjamin Netanyahu will talk next week, as he has innumerable times before, about how an Iranian nuclear weapon is supposedly an extremely grave and imminent (he has been saying for years that it is just around the corner) threat to world peace and to his nation. There has been genuine concern in Israel about this subject, but Netanyahu's own behavior and posture indicate this is not the concern that is driving his conduct and in particular his diplomacy-wrecking efforts. He is acting out of other motives, ones that—quite unlike the objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon—are not shared with the United States and instead directly conflict with U.S. interests.

There have been plenty of reasons to doubt all along Netanyahu's alarmist rhetoric. There has been his history of wolf-crying on the subject, against the background of an Iran that has not even decided to build a nuclear weapon. There is the further background of Israel's overwhelming military superiority in the region, at not only the conventional level but also at the level about which Netanyahu is raising such alarm. And there are the repeated indications that his alarmism goes beyond what even his own security services believe.

But even those reasons are not the main ones to conclude that Netanyahu is not acting on behalf of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. The main, and most obvious, reason is that he is pushing for an outcome that would remove restrictions and enhanced monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program and would give the Iranians more freedom to expand that program than they otherwise would have. That would be the result of destroying the negotiation process that Netanyahu is trying to destroy, while destroying along with it the preliminary agreement that has kept the Iranian program more heavily restricted and monitored than it had ever been before. An absence of agreement is the only plausible alternative to whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations, and Netanyahu is smart enough to realize that.

The made-for-TV (and for Israeli campaign ads) platform in the House of Representatives chamber does not give members of Congress an opportunity to ask questions of Netanyahu. All that members can do is to bob up and down out of their seats in a gluteus-abusing way of supposedly expressing their “support for Israel.” But if they could ask questions, the glaring question begging to be asked is, “Mr. Prime Minister, if you really are so concerned about the possibility of the Iranian nuclear program leading to a nuclear weapon, why are you urging us to take actions that would result in that program having fewer restrictions, and less international monitoring, than it otherwise would?”

The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all. Netanyahu's defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government's objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.

From Netanyahu's viewpoint this objective serves several purposes. It diminishes the freedom of action of a major competitor (the second most populous country in the Middle East) for regional influence, and one that will continue to be highly critical of Israel as long as the Palestinian issue endures. By postulating a permanent, ominous threat emanating from Iran, one of the assumptions underlying a U.S. strategic relationship with Israel is retained. By opposing—and to the extent Israeli efforts are successful, preventing—the United States from doing any worthwhile business with Iran, whether on nuclear matters or on anything else, the Israeli claim to being the only reliable and effective U.S. partner in the region sounds more convincing.

The specter of Iran and especially of its nuclear program also serves as the best possible distraction and diversion from issues in which Israel is the chief problem and that Netanyahu and his government would rather not talk about. This especially includes, of course, the continued Israeli occupation of, and policies in, Palestinian territory. Netanyahu repeatedly and quickly responds to efforts by others to engage on these other issues, and especially to any direct criticism of Israeli policies, by reminding us that Iran is the “real” threat to peace and security in the region. Permanent festering of the Iranian nuclear issue serves Netanyahu's objectives better than any resolution of the issue would.