Netanyahu: Repetitive fear-mongering undermines US-Israeli relations


Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—who bypassed the White House in accepting House Speaker John A. Boehner’s invitation to address Congress on Iran’s nuclear programme—proceeded in a fashion that has come to typify his leadership; namely exaggeration, fear-mongering and hypocrisy. Netanyahu’s visit sparked a fierce debate before the Israeli Prime Minister even set foot on U.S soil, with critics suggesting it was a political ploy intended to court voters in the upcoming Israeli election, an accusation he was quick to deny in his speech on Tuesday. Despite heaping praise on the continued U.S governmental and Congressional support for Israel, which earned him several standing ovations and universal applause from both sides of Congress, Netanyahu’s overtures concealed the divisiveness of his visit; close to 60 democratic members boycotted the speech in protest of its supposed partisan motivations.

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Above: The Guardian political cartoonist Steve Bell’s take on Netanyahu’s Congressional address

After a waxing lyrical about the “common destiny” of Israel and the U.S for a few minutes, Netanyahu got down to the real impetus for his visit in typically apocalyptic fashion, making regular references to the holocaust, Iran’s “Islamist medieval creed” and Ayatollah Khamenei’s devious plans to “annihilate my country”. Speaking on the eve of the Jewish festival of Purim, which celebrates the salvation of the Jewish people in Ancient Persia from an evil King’s plot to murder them, Netanyahu relished the opportunity to refer to the 2500 year old story as evidence of Iran’s longstanding animosity towards the Jewish people. However, beyond the fiery rhetoric, Netanyahu’s speech proved to be all bark and no bite, containing, as President Obama rightly noted, “nothing new”. The President added that the Israeli Prime Minister “didn’t offer any viable alternatives;” Netanyahu’s only proposal was the continuation of existing nuclear restrictions and international sanctions against Iran, which have failed to prevent the development of the Iranian nuclear programme thus far and have had devastating consequences for Iranian citizens.

When Netanyahu’s speech is unpacked, it reveals the Israeli Prime Minister’s selective memory, historical ignorance and questionable political analysis. His suggestion that the Islamic Republic harbours genocidal intentions towards the Jews across the globe belies the fact that Iran possesses the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel, and that the Anti-Defamation League’s 2014 Global Index of anti-Semitism placed Iran as the least anti-Semitic nation in the Middle East and North Africa region. His allusions to ancient history are equally uninformed; as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed out, the Purim holiday celebrates Queen Esther’s persuasion of the Persian ruler not to exterminate the Jews. Zarif also pointed to Persian ruler Cyrus the Great’s historic protection of Jews; Iran’s Jewish population, which has existed since long before the birth of Islam, claims descent from the Jews who fled ancient Babylon and sought refuge in the former Achaemenid Empire. Notwithstanding Ayatollah Khamenei’s reputation for incendiary Twitter rants against the state of Israel, Iran’s track record regarding their Jewish population is much less tarnished than many other Middle Eastern states. In line with Islamic doctrine which requires the protection of ‘people of the book’, Article 13 of the Iranian constitution explicitly protects Jewish minorities.

Netanyahu’s analysis of the unfolding battle against militant Islam is equally misguided, replete with inflammatory exaggerations. By describing “Iran’s goons in Gaza” and the Golan Heights, he ignored the split that has occurred between Iran and Hamas over Syria. He referred to Shiite militias “rampaging across Iraq”, despite the fact that those very same militias are leading the charge against the Islamic State, rendering them (perhaps temporarily) America’s de facto allies. He accused Iran of “gobbling up nations,” describing them as “the foremost sponsor of global terrorism” and equating them with ISIS, a gross oversimplification which ignores the great cleavages that exist between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Netanyahu’s suggestion that Iran is seeking to build an “Islamic empire” also appears a desperate overstatement; in a response published in The New York Times, Iranian Ambassador to the U.N, Gholamali Khoshroo, pointed out that Iran “has not invaded another country since America became a sovereign nation.” Israel’s short history, on the other hand, features numerous incidents of aggression against sovereign states, notwithstanding the continued occupation of the West Bank, Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu’s distortion and oversimplification of the political situation in the Middle East is useful for stirring fear and unease among American and Israeli viewers, but is inimical to the quest for a real and lasting peace in the region.

The real substance of Netanyahu’s address to congress came is his warnings about the Iranian nuclear programme. He raised a number of accurate points, which the Obama administration is doubtlessly aware of. He claimed that the proposed deal will most likely reduce Iran’s ‘breakout time’—the time it takes to amass enough weapons grade uranium for the construction of an atom bomb—to around a year. He reminded Congress of Iran’s checkered past when it comes to international nuclear inspectors, likening their actions to those of North Korea. Finally, he used the existence of secret Iranian nuclear facilities in the past to suggest that “Iran could be hiding nuclear facilities that we don’t know about”. A similar argument was promulgated to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003; a catastrophic failure based on unfounded information, and one that Netanyahu was a vocal supporter for.

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Above: Netanyahu at the U.N in 2012, asserting that Iran was less than a year away from developing nuclear weapons (with the help of a handy chart)

This last fact is relevant when one considers Netanyahu’s long history of exaggerating the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear project. As a member of the Israeli parliament in 1992, Netanyahu predicted Iran would be able to produce a nuclear weapon in three to five years. In 1996 he addressed Congress to stress that “time is running out” to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb and in 1997 asserted to the BBC that Iran was “building a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles.” Most recently, in a speech to the U.N in 2012, Netanyahu declared that Iran was within a year of acquiring an atomic bomb, a fact that was quickly contradicted by Mossad, his own intelligence agency. Absent from Netanyahu’s speech was the reality of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Israel in fact has a large arsenal of over 70 nuclear warheads, and is not a signatory to the U.N Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran itself is a party to. It therefore appears that Netanyahu’s aversion to Iran’s nuclear programme is not motivated by any real threat posed to Israel, but a desire to maintain the balance of power in the Middle East and an aversion to seeing Iran recognised by the U.S as a major player in the region.

Overall, Netanyahu provided an entertaining and emotive speech; Steve Cohen, the Jewish Democratic representative for Tennessee, remarked after: “I thought it would be political theatre and indeed it was worthy of an Oscar.” However, a thorough analysis reveals it to be a short-sighted, inflammatory piece of propaganda, big on rhetoric but short on facts and clearly intended to court voters back home. However, an Israeli poll in the wake of his Congressional address saw 90% of voter’s state that the speech had not inspired them to change their vote, with the centre-left opposition party Zionist Union edging slightly ahead in some polls. In essence, Netanyahu’s speech appears to have achieved little, other than to further alienate his government from their greatest and closest ally. The U.S-Israeli relationship will undoubtedly recover. Whether Netanyahu’s reputation will remains to be seen.

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