How Netanyahu Seeks to Change US Elections By Pushing War with Iran

Although Obama has ruled out US participation in a strike against Iran before the election, Israel has already won by setting the lens that America sees the Middle East through.

Driven by fear that a second-term Obama administration won’t be as lenient towards Israeli expansionism and dispossession of Palestinians as a Republican (or even a first term Obama) administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to use Iran to change the course of the US election. While Netanyahu’s call for a strike against against Iran’s nuclear facilities has kept Washington silent on discussing Palestinians, he is looking to make that permanent by shepherding a coalition of right wing Western support to push America into another Middle East war.

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In his effort to generate a GOP president in 2013, the Israeli PM is trying to create a US policy and discussion that sees the Middle East as a conflict zone between Tehran and Tel Aviv, where Ramallah and the future of Jerusalem are effectively erased. It is a policy shift that Netanyahu has seen it work in Canada and now he’s betting it will pay off at the big table.

Just ahead of his trip to Washington to meet with Obama and rally AIPAC to pressure Obama into supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu unveiled his government’s red lines for an Iranian strike in the halls of Canada’s Parliament. Amidst a backdrop of intertwined Canadian and Israeli flags, Canada’s conservative PM Stephen Harper repeated Netanyahu’s talking points on the perceived threat posed by Iran.

While expressing preference for a peaceful resolution -- a step down from Canadian pro war comments in the weeks prior, Harper ultimately gave Israel Canada’s public approval for a strike. “We, of course, recognize the right of Israel to defend itself as a sovereign state, as a Jewish state,” Harper saidafter expressing his hope that Israeli demands (which include Iran ending all domestic uranium enrichment) are achieved through sanctions.

“Certainly when push comes to shove and the Israelis decide to do something unilaterally, you won’t find Canada criticizing it,” said Rex Brynen, a long time Middle East analyst for the Canadian Government and Political Science professor at McGill University. “You will almost certainly find, I suspect, Canada making statements that are effectively supportive of it,” he added over the phone from Montreal.

Canada has traditionally exercised a foreign policy that has been in line with the US and when there were differences, like Vietnam and Iraq, Canada attempted to temper the impact of US military interventionism. Yet, since 2006 when Harper came to power and Israel went to war in Lebanon, Canada’s foreign policy has echoed the Israeli perspective louder than any other G8 country.

Despite being America’s largest trading partner and oil provider, Canada’s foreign policy perspectives on the Middle East carry little weight in Washington. However, Canada (a NATO member) does sit at a lot of international tables that Israel doesn’t and since Harper’s rise to power in 2006, Canada hasn’t been shy about pushing Israeli demands, even over US ones.

An emphatic supporter of Israel’s 2008-2009 war on Gaza, Canada has worked at the UN and international bodies it sits on to strengthen Israeli positions on the Middle East and provide cover for its continued repression and occupation of Palestinians.

Most notably this was seen during the 2011 G8 summit where Canada nixed any reference to the 1967 borderlines for a Palestinian state in a call for the resumption of Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. “That is probably the most significant thing we have done because it would have been unthinkable for Canada to torpedo a US diplomatic initiative on the Middle East in the past,” said Brynen who also specializes in peace-building and has consulted for the UN. “On Israel/Palestine, clearly this [Canadian] government shares the views of the Netanyahu government on dynamics and what the problem is,” he adds, referencing Israel’s perception of Iran and denial of the impact of its treatment of Palestinians.

Brynen describes Canada’s Middle East policy of bolstering Israeli aggression as lining up with the candidates in the Republican primary, although less rhetorical. As a result of this polite Tea Party, the Canadian capital has become a platform for Netanyahu to solidify a Western discourse for war with Iran that intends to fire up AIPAC and the Republican primaries while keeping Palestinians off the agenda.

“Bibi [the Israeli PM's nick name] desperately wants a Republican victory in November, that’s why the time frame around attacking Iran is so short,” contended Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Washington based Institute for Policy Studies. She cited Netanyahu’s concern that a reelected Obama would be more reluctant to attack Iran and more likely to push Israel on Palestinian issues before she added wryly over the phone from New York, “I wish I could be as confident [in change from a second term Obama] as they are…When Netanyahu says we don’t have much time, what he means is we don’t have much time before Obama could get re-elected.”

This Israeli government is no stranger to using war as an election tool, after all, Israel’s governing coalition (which the PM is on the moderate side of) was swept to power in Israel’s 2009 election on the back of the Gaza war and based on campaigns of labeling Hamas in Gaza and Palestinian citizens of Israel as potential existential threats. Since then, pushing loyalty oaths for non-Jews, making the promotion of boycotts against Israel illegal, expanding settlements in the Occupied West Bank and beating the drums of war, has only resulted in increased poll numbers for Netanyahu's party and coalition. According to a recent poll by the liberal daily Haaretz, while Israelis have little appetite for a unilateral strike on Iran, popular support for Netanyahu’s Likud party and its right wing coalition partners is on the rise.

Now the Israeli PM is presenting Iran as a second Nazi Germany, looking to build nuclear weapons and create another Holocaust, a perspective flatly rejected by former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, who sees Iran as a rational actor.

The campaign is showing results. All the leading Republican candidates are backing Netanyahu’s call for the US to support Israel in any strike on Iran. Just last Saturday, Rick Santorum indicated to a crowd of 700 Republicans in Missouri that the threat from Iran was potentially a bigger subject for the election year than jobs. "People say, 'Well what’s gonna be the most important, oh jobs, jobs, jobs," said Santorum. "Well maybe not. We’ve got a country in the Middle East that’s about, potentially about to explode a nuclear weapon, which would change the face of our Earth."

In addition, 86 Republican members of Congress have signed a letter calling on Obama to provide unwavering support for an Israeli attack. Despite reminding Americans of the cost of being dragged into another Middle East war and opposition to an attack from the US military establishment, Obama is being pressed to not interfere with unilateral action by the region’s only nuclear power.

While there is clearly an element of good cop/bad cop in the American and Israeli approach to deterring Iran, Israel has created a context where it feels it can defy the White House. This has been based on Netanyahu cobbling together a coalition of right wing interests in the US, and West more broadly, to create a political discourse where confrontation is the only option.

For Bennis, the success of Israel’s efforts to skirt any discussion of Palestinian rights while building support for war is the product of a broken American electoral system driven by lobbies over public interest. “The fact that what [they] are calling for flies in the face of what Americans want, doesn’t undermine their ability to gain public support for those positions, because those politicians can gain from the largesse of AIPAC,” she said.

Although Obama has ruled out US participation in a strike against Iran before the election, Israel has already won by setting the lens that America sees the Middle East through. As a result Obama has been cornered into reassuring US acquiescence to Israel taking unilateral action. Netanyahu has already exported his 2009 election strategy and now he is banking on Americans agreeing with his sentiments that “For Iran, you are us and we are you.”

Jesse Rosenfeld is a Toronto journalist who was based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv from 2007 to 2011. He has written for the Nation, Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, and Foreign Policy, among others.