Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu makes a habit of imposing himself as an uninvited guest.
His presence at the head of the march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings—despite the efforts of French president Francois Hollande—gave the lie to its organisers’ avowed defence of democratic ideals.
Netanyahu was at it again last week. He addressed a joint session of the US Congress, despite the opposition of US president Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. It was a partisan affair. For the Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress, this was a way of snubbing Obama.
Netanyahu is facing a closely fought election in Israel. So he hoped a rapturous reception—first from Zionist lobbying organisation the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), then from the Republicans at Congress—would make him look good back home.
His ostensible aim was to campaign against the deal that the US and five other “world powers” (China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany) are negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme. As US commentator Jon Stewart pointed out, Netanyahu has been crying wolf—warning that Iran is on the verge of having nuclear weapons—since the 1990s.
The Iranians rightly called him a hypocrite, since Israel has around 200 nuclear warheads.
There are divisions about the negotiations both in Iran and the US. The Republicans echo Netanyahu’s accusation that by allowing Iran to continue its civilian nuclear programme Obama is giving the Islamic Republican regime leeway to develop nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani faces criticism for going soft on the “Great Satan”. Netanyahu’s opposition is probably helpful in this context.
Netanyahu is getting domestic flak for antagonising Israel’s main patron. Some 200 ex-generals signed a letter denouncing his trip to Washington.
Meir Dagan, former chief of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, said recently that Netanyahu’s policies are “destructive to the future and security of Israel”.
The row underlines that the relationship between the US and Israel is more complex than is suggested by those who argue that Aipac and the rest of the Zionist lobby effectively dictate US policy in the Middle East.
The US finds it useful to have in Israel a heavily armed client in a strategic region. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t willing to put pressure on Israel.
For example, in 1992 George Bush senior’s administration announced it wouldn’t provide Israel with around £7 billion in housing loan guarantees because the government of Yitzhak Shamir refused to negotiate with the Palestinians.
The historian Avi Shlaim wrote, “They took the bold step of indicating to the Israeli electorate that, if they wanted American financial support to continue, they should change their government.” Shamir lost the subsequent election.
Later US administrations have been more cowardly. But George Friedman of intelligence website Stratfor has argued Israel is facing a long term shift in US strategy in the Middle East. “Having failed to pacify Afghanistan or Iraq, the United States has come to the conclusion that wars of occupation are beyond American capacity. It is prepared to use air power and very limited ground forces in Iraq, for example,” he wrote.
“The United States wants regional powers to deal with issues that threaten their interests more than American interests. At the same time, the United States does not want any one country to dominate the region.
“Therefore, it is in the American interest to have multiple powers balancing each other. There are four such powers: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.”
Obama has concluded that it’s better to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme through negotiations than a war that is probably unwinnable. And the US and Iran have a common interest in beating Isis, which is rabidly hostile to Shia Muslims.
This doesn’t foreshadow a straightforward US-Iran axis. The US also needs Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both ruled by Sunni Muslim regimes that want to overthrow Iran’s Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad.
But, for all his swaggering, Netanyahu has become just a pawn in a much bigger game.