Bibi, the Bomb, and the Israeli Election

By Nick Gier, The Palouse Pundit

The day that Republicans were falling all over themselves applauding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, 25,000 Israelis were protesting against him in Tel Aviv.  In addition to criticizing Netanyahu for undermining America’s bipartisan support for Israel, opposition leaders charge that he rejects negotiations with the Palestinians and that his economic reforms have failed.  For example, housing prices have risen 55 percent over the last five years.

Netanyahu called for snap elections two years’ early after his right-wing coalition fell apart, and he thought that a hard-hitting speech to Congress about the Iran nuclear threat would assure his victory.  The latest polls show, however, that his center-left opponents, led by the Labor Party’s Isaac Hertzog, are now ahead by four seats in the 120-seat Knesset.  Leaders in Netanyahu’s Likud Party are openly blaming him for this looming electoral disaster.

The biggest surprise is the strength of the Joint Arab List, a new coalition of Israeli Arabs, which is running third in the polls, but it will refuse to join any party in a new coalition government.  An ultranationalist party, which wants Israeli Arabs to take loyalty oaths, has lost support in the polls and is no longer allied with Netanyahu’s Likud Party.  

The Jewish Home Party, which wants even more Jewish settlements in the West Bank (contrary to international law), is still polling strong. Right-wing parties such as Jewish Home will give Netanyahu 19 seats according to the current count.  If a victorious Hertzog cannot form a 61-seat majority, then Netanyahu could still continue as prime minister with his right-wing allies.

Most of the world’s leaders share Israeli fears about a nuclear Iran, but the consensus of both Israeli and American intelligence is that Iran has made no decision to build a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu and 47 Senate Republicans have threatened the delicate negotiations now under way.  Secretary of State John Kerry needs the continued support of Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany, who agreed to let the U. S. lead the negotiations and have placed strict economic sanctions on Iran.

European talks with Iran were going nowhere until the Obama administration took over. The issue of trust was always focused on the Iranian government, but now it has shifted.  Can the rest of the world trust Obama to lead, when the Republicans have challenged his constitutional prerogative to negotiate international agreements? Obama is correct to say that the GOP gambit may have encouraged Iran’s hard liners to dig in their heels.

Netanyahu took issue with those who criticized his speech before he delivered it, but he thought nothing of condemning a deal with Iran before it has been announced. I will not delve into the details of the negotiations, but suffice it to say that even if Iran develops nuclear weapons, the Iranians would think twice before using them against Israel.

Iran is currently a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has allowed inspections for years, and these will continue indefinitely under any new agreement.  Writing for The Atlantic, James Fallows reports that Iran has reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium, and current negotiations contain a promise to dramatically reduce the number of centrifuges for enrichment.  (During the administration of George W. Bush, who refused to negotiate with Iran, the number of centrifuges grew from 164 to over 7,000.) Iran is also expected to permanently modify “the heavy water reactor at Arak so it produces near zero plutonium.”

Israel has not signed the NPT and has never allowed the presence of international inspectors. It also has refused to acknowledge that it has at least 80 nuclear weapons, which can be launched by submarines, jet bombers, and guided missiles.  (U.S. officials have been fired for disclosing these facts.) Israel could destroy all of Iran’s major cities and military installations within an hour.

The official Israeli position on nuclear weapons is therefore a lie: “Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Israel supports a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction following the attainment of peace.” 

Two former Israeli Defense Force chiefs—Lt. Generals Dan Halutz and Benny Gantz—do not believe that Iran poses an existential threat; indeed, they believe that Netanyahu’s exaggerations have made the situation worse. Gantz believes that Iran is a rational actor and would not envisage nuclear war with Israel.

 Like on most domestic issues, the GOP’s hard position on Iran is not supported by the American people. A University of Maryland poll reveals that 61 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats support Obama’s attempts to negotiate with Iran. Netanyahu claims that he has the greatest respect for President Obama and the office he holds. If that is so, why did not he insist that that his invitation to speak to Congress come from the president himself.  He also declared that his trip was not politically motivated, but it is obvious that the speech was for his American right-wing supporters and for the Israeli voters back home.  It appears as if his gamble has not paid off, and the cost to America’s long-standing bipartisan support for Israel will be great.

UI Professor Emeritus Nick Gier broadcasts as the “Palouse Pundit” every other Wednesday at KRFP-FM (90.3).

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