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Netanyahu’s ‘Mr Iran’ routine is a winning formula with Israelis

Analysis: The Israeli PM knows he cannot lose on domestic front with doom-laden claims of Iranian nuclear plots – and repercussions abroad do not appear to trouble him

Al-Araby – 27 February 2015

A document from Israel’s Mossad spy agency leaked this week raises troubling questions about Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s goals in distorting the available intelligence on Iran.

Netanyahu has made clear that he wishes to prevent major western powers from reaching an agreement next month that would tighten controls on Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for easing of US-backed sanctions.

The Israeli prime minister, who is due to address the US Congress next week, is expected to call for Washington to avoid making any significant concessions.

He asserted this week that an agreement would leave Iran as a “nuclear threshold state”. “Iran will get a licence to develop bombs – and this is a country which openly declares its intention to destroy the state of Israel,” he said.

His attacks on the Obama administration’s willingness to enter talks with Iran, leaks by his officials of sensitive US negotiating positions, and his address to the Congress – agreed behind Obama’s back – have all contributed to bringing relations between the two countries to an unprecedented low.

On Tuesday, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, called Netanyahu’s actions “destructive” to the special relationship.

In a sign of the extent of the tensions, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, stung Netanyahu on Wednesday by tying him – and by implication, Israel – to the US invasion of Iraq. “Netanyahu was outspoken in his support for the Iraq invasion, and we all know how that turned out,” he said.

The Mossad document, which contradicts Netanayhu’s claims that Iran is hell-bent on developing a nuclear weapon, casts a new light on the Israeli prime minister’s campaign against Iran and his feud with the White House.

The Mossad’s assessment in 2012, when Netanayahu was most vocal about the threat posed by Iran, was that Tehran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”. That view appears to have been shared by US spy agencies.

Iran has always stated that its nuclear programme is aimed only at civilian energy uses.

Since the report was drafted, former heads of the Israeli intelligence services, such as the previous Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, have openly accused Netanyahu of fearmongering. Their statements suggest that the Israeli security establishment continues to see no impending existential danger from Iran’s nuclear programme.

Further, an Israeli government document leaked earlier this month shows that, despite Netanyahu’s alarmism about the talks with Iran, his foreign ministry has concluded that the chances of a deal being reached next month are “very poor”.

Political survival

So why is Netanyahu acting like a bull in a diplomatic china shop, and doing so at the cost of imperilling relations with the US, when his own advisers say there is no obvious Iranian threat and a deal is unlikely?

The answer is to be found on two levels: one related specifically to Netanyahu’s political survival; and the other to Israel’s longer-term regional interests.

Scaremongering about Iran has proved a winning formula for Netanyahu, who looks about to secure a third consecutive term as prime minister at next month’s general election, making him one of the country’s longest serving leaders.

His popularity has hardly been dented by the current row with the US, or by stories of his family’s profligate lifestyle at taxpayers’ expense and their alleged abusive treatment of staff.

On Wednesday, when an Israeli watchdog damned Netanyahu’s government for failing to solve a housing shortage that threatens the economy, Netanyahu predictably posted on Twitter: “When we talk about housing prices, about the cost of living, I do not for a second forget about life itself. The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

There are, in addition, larger political advantages to exaggerating the Iranian threat. Mossad’s current chief, Tamir Pardo, is reported to have warned privately that a strategic danger bigger than Iran is Israel’s failure to resolve the Palestinian issue.

The emphasis on Iran’s nuclear programme, however, has allowed Netanyahu to deflect attention from his own refusal to countenance a Palestinian state. Instead he has argued that, if the Israeli army left the West Bank, Tehran would set up terrorism bases there.

Netanyahu’s claim that Iran is like a latter-day Nazi Germany plays well with his right-wing constituency.

Israeli analyst Akiva Eldar said this week that Netanyahu’s intransigence would work to his advantage with the Israeli public, whatever the outcome of US negotiations with Iran.

Should an agreement be reached – one Netanyahu says will endanger Israel – then he will argue that a strong and experienced leader is needed to take on Tehran directly.

But should the western powers walk away from the talks, Netanyahu will claim he prevented the international community from making a historic mistake. He will present his address to the Congress, Eldar notes, as the moment he single-handedly “derailed a bad agreement”.

Consensus on Iran

But it is telling too that the leaked Mossad report has gained almost no traction in Israel, either in the media or among his political rivals.

The reason is that there is a wide Israeli consensus that Iran is indeed a strategic threat. This wisdom long predates Netanyahu’s decision to crown himself “Mr Iran”.

Israeli politicians and generals have been warning that Tehran is only months or years from building a nuclear bomb since the early 1990s.

Israel began focusing on the danger posed by Iran immediately following the 1991 Gulf War. That marked the end of a long period in which Israel’s two biggest regional rivals – Iraq and Iran – had depleted each other’s military resources through a savage war.

With the emasculation of Iraq by the combined effect of Operation Desert Storm and the imposition by the US of a crippling sanctions regime and no-fly zone, Iran was freed through the 1990s to invest its energies in economic and military recovery.

Israeli leaders grew increasingly fearful that Iran would become a regional power that might soon rival Israel, especially if it gained a nuclear arsenal to match Israel’s own.

Of especial concern was Iran’s alliance with and support for local actors – Syria, the Lebanese militia Hizballah, and Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories – who also opposed Israel’s regional hegemony.

Netanyahu’s talk about Iran as Nazi Germany and its supposed intention to destroy Israel provides cover for other concerns, as Aluf Benn, now the editor of Israel’s liberal Haaretz daily, indicated back in 1994.

A powerful Iran, he wrote, echoing the self-serving language of Israel’s security establishment, could “ruin the peace process [with the Palestinians] by virtue of having nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, of building a modern air force and navy, of exporting terrorism and revolution and subverting Arab secular regimes.”

In other words, an Iran as militarily strong as Israel would limit Israel’s ability to impose by force its will on the Middle East. Not least, Israel would no longer be solely in charge of determining the Palestinians’ fate.

Israel’s new ‘conspiracy theory’

Such fears have only escalated apparently. Ben Caspit, an Israeli security reporter, pointed this month to what he called a “conspiracy theory” that was increasingly popular among the Israeli, Saudi and Egyptian intelligence services. It postulates that Washington is considering replacing these three countries as its principal regional allies in favour of Iran, in a desperate effort to stablise the Middle East.

Trita Parsi, an expert on US-Iranian-Israeli relations, assesses Israeli concerns in similar terms: “After a deal with Iran, Washington would be even more likely to shift its geopolitical focus elsewhere and be less intertwined with Israel’s needs.”

In this sense, Netanyahu can make political capital from playing up the danger from Iran, knowing that he will suffer no serious domestic consequences.

The intelligence services that have been quietly criticising him agree that Iran needs to be militarily contained and dissuaded from seeking the bomb. Ideally, most would probably prefer to see Iran attacked. Their dispute with Netanyahu regards not his goals, but his means.

Mossad, Shin Bet and Israeli military intelligence want any military initiatives against Iran to come from the US. A go-it-alone strike by Israel of the kind Netanyahu has threatened is seen as potentially catastrophic – or as wrecking the “entire region for 100 years”, as former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy put it in late 2011.

In their view, an Israeli military strike cannot hope to destroy Iran’s nuclear programme. It would at best set it back a few years.

But the ramifications would be serious. Tehran could be expected to respond by investing heavily in building a bomb to deter any future attack, and by striking at Israel though any means possible, including its regional allies.

Instead, the Israeli security services have preferred for the time being to lobby quietly for an intensification of the sanctions regime against Iran and for joint covert operations to prevent Iran from making too fast progress with its nuclear technology, even of the kind it needs for a peaceful, energy programme.

Former Mossad boss Dagan boasted to the US, in a cable published by Wikileaks in 2010, that Israel could contain Iran’s nuclear programme for the foreseeable future through “black ops”. These have included infecting Iran’s nuclear programme with computer viruses, selling it faulty parts, planting falsified documents to mislead inspectors, and assassinating Iranian scientists.

Ultimately, Dagan suggested to the US, Mossad would prefer to see the current regime toppled.

Israeli analyst Amir Oren noted this week that Israel would have no problem with a nuclear-armed Iran, if it could reinstall the Pahlavis – the Iranian dynasty of dictators who ruled before the 1979 revolution and were close allies of Israel.

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