How Netanyahu is hedging his bets in the 2012 election.
Yousef Munayyer, Al Jazeera
Washington, DC – If Iran strikes Israel with a nuclear weapon, every member of my family living throughout Israel and Palestine could be killed or injured and my place of birth and ancestral homeland would likely be rendered uninhabitable. The scale of loss for me personally, and for humanity, would be immeasurable. Yet I have little fear.
If one divorces the reactionary and emotional impulses from the rational assessments necessary for understanding geopolitics, it becomes rather clear to see that there is no persuasive argument supporting the possibility of an Iranian strike on Israel or a so-called pre-emptive strike on Iran that makes sense.
Many of those in support of an Israeli or American strike on Iran will tell you that reason does not apply to the assessment of Iran’s behaviour as the Islamic Republic’s ideological commitment is paramount. Adherents of such thinking, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will have us believe that Iran is akin to Nazi Germany and that it is anti-Semitism that fuels their desires.
Most analysts, myself included, however, look at Iran’s past behaviour as the best indicator of its future decision-making and note the many steps the Iranian regime has taken to ensure regime survival and act rationally as a political power in the region.
Iran’s use of a nuclear weapon against Israel would assure its destruction, as Israel could launch any of the hundreds of nuclear weapons it has and the United States could use some of the 5,000 they have as well. Not only would Iran’s destruction be assured if it struck Israel, but again, if it did so, it could kill millions of Palestinians and wipe out one of Islam’s holiest sites in Jerusalem.
The advocates for war would have you believe that the Islamic Republic hates Jews more than it loves Muslims. They might also note that Palestinians are mostly Sunnis and Iranians are Shia so Iran, which is locked in a regional sectarian battle, wouldn’t think twice to strike. Yet some of these same Iran hawks argue that Iran is joining forces with al-Qaeda, an exclusively Sunni organisation, in its efforts across the region. In short, Iran hawks are trying to have it both ways as most conveniently supports their bellicose plans.
None of these arguments for striking Iran makes any sense and still the arguments and the headlines that accompany them bear a striking resemblance to those that preceded the war on Iraq. We all know how that turned out – chaos, casualties, and with Iran very much involved in the running of Iraq.
Israeli strike on Iran
A recent report noted that former senior White House official, Dennis Ross, who is known for his closeness to the Israelis, estimated an Israeli strike on Iran could come in the next nine months.
In about nine months, the US will hold a general election to decide who shall be its President and all the noise about striking Iran could have more to do with American domestic politics than any real or perceived threat to the Israelis.
It is no secret that the right-wing government in Israel led by Netanyahu would prefer a new US president in January 2013. This is not simply because Netanyahu had some tense moments with President Obama, but also because in a second term Obama would not face the type of electoral constraints he faces in his first term.
It is no secret that US Presidents who have engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making have been most active in their second terms as Bill Clinton was at Camp David and George W Bush was in Annapolis. Those that were particularly active in first terms – Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush – were defeated. Netanyahu does not want an unrestrained Obama demanding he halt settlement expansion in 2013. He’d rather have Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich as they are more likely to be more susceptible to the pro-Israel pressures AIPAC is apt to apply.
Netanyahu also knows that if Israel went ahead and attacked Iran on its own before the election, he would put Obama in an extremely compromising position. Obama does not want to get into a war with Iran, nor should any American as it is completely against American interests, but Obama also knows that should Israel go it alone, he’d be obligated to participate lest he appear weak before the electorate and a Republican opponent who’d be more than happy to attack Obama on what would immediately become a major international crisis before the election.
The spectre of an Israeli strike on Iran will have Obama asking Netanyahu what he can do to change Netanyahu’s mind and put off the strike to say, at least after November. Netanyahu’s response might be something like, “Mr President, I thought you’d never ask!”
From this position, Netanyahu can ask for specific guarantees, similar to the ones George W Bush made, which Obama does not recognise, about Israel’s retention of major settlement blocs in any deal with the Palestinians. He could ask for guarantees about the future of Jerusalem, which he wants to keep in violation of international law, and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, over which he seeks to maintain a long-term military presence, rendering a would-be Palestinian state dead on arrival.
No one benefits from Israel actually striking Iran, except for the military industrial complex, but the Netanyahu government has a great deal to gain from hanging the possibility of a unilateral strike ominously over the head of President Obama before an election. They are hedging their bets for November in the hopes that they will either get a first-term Republican facing domestic constraints that prevent him from pressuring Israel, or a docile Obama, who has already given away the house on Jerusalem and settlements.
Don’t be surprised if news of such guarantees emerges prior to November, perhaps even as early as the March AIPAC policy conference, where Obama is expected to speak.
Yousef Munayyer is a writer and political analyst based in Washington, DC. He is currently the Executive Director of the Palestine Centre in Washington, DC.