Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a difficult election in only two weeks, came to Washington pretending to be deeply alarmed by Iran’s potential for developing a nuclear weapon and saying he is determined to ensure that President Barack Obama’s negotiations with Tehran result in a “better deal” than the one now anticipated (without detailing how that could be done).
In fact, Netanyahu had three unstated goals. His first and most important was to shore up his own flagging political fortunes in Israel. Second, he wanted to forestall any further pressure from Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and congressional Democrats for a peace deal with the Palestinians, having successfully torpedoed the 2013–14 round of talks. Third, he wanted to forestall a thaw in US-Iran relations, which is apparent both in the nuclear talks and on the ground in Iraq, where Washington, Baghdad and Tehran are now de facto allies against ISIL.
Politicians first and foremost typically want to get re-elected. While Netanyahu’s prospects look good, they are not completely assured. His ratings took a hit after his disastrous attack on Gaza last summer, which appears to have accomplished none of its stated goals and which led to a rash of diplomatic defeats for Israel in Europe. He faces the most credible center-left challenge in years, with former right-wing icon Tzipi Livni now allied with the Labor Party. Despite strong economic growth in the fourth quarter, Israel faces problems similar to those in the United States, in that the new wealth goes to a thin sliver of billionaires. Increased poverty (a third of Israelis are now poor), long waits for healthcare, high rents and a growing wealth gap bedevil Israeli domestic policy, and Netanyahu is on the side of the billionaires who bankroll his campaigns, not that of workers and students. A tried-and-true tactic of the political right has long been to play up foreign threats or to divide the working class by appeals to racism, as a way of diverting attention from domestic problems. Moreover, Netanyahu hopes to gain in stature from the welcome he knew he would get in Congress. Speaking in Washington on the supposed threat of Iran was the ultimate in trolling the Israeli left.
Netanyahu uses that alleged threat in a desperate attempt to disguise his increasing resemblance to South Africa’s P.W. Botha, the “Great Crocodile,” who consigned black Africans to Bantustans as a means of denying them political participation in South African politics—just as Israel has permanently herded Palestinians into disconnected zones in the West Bank or cooped them up in a huge outdoor prison in Gaza. The resemblance, however, is becoming impossible to disregard. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is dedicated to annexing the West Bank of the Jordan, and many of its members now openly say that they will never allow a Palestinian state. Many Israeli companies have extensive investments in the West Bank, and they fund what Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi has termed the “setter-industrial complex,” a prime constituency for Netanyahu.