By Farhang Jahanpour
After all the huffing and puffing and all the aroused expectations about the speech by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the joint session of US Congress, the speech proved a great disappointment and even an embarrassment. A great deal has already been written about it, and there is no need to repeat all that here. Here I only wish to draw attention to some of the glaring distortions in the speech and the harm that it can do to the cause of Iranian and Israeli rapprochement and, more importantly, to the cause of peace in the Middle East.
The speech was a cynical use of the US Congress for domestic electoral ambitions.
Recently, Netanyahu had been trailing the Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog in the number of projected seats in the forthcoming Israeli election. He certainly hoped that as the result of the publicity that his speech would generate he could reverse the trend. In the process, his intrusion into America’s domestic politics has deepened the divide between the Democrats and the Republicans and has introduced a strong element of partisanship to US relations with Israel. In other words, the speech was more about himself than the fate of the State of Israel or US-Israeli relations or international peace.
When Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican senator, visited Jerusalem last December, he told the Israeli leader: “I’m here to tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, that the Congress will follow your lead… [on Iran].” (1) Therefore, it was no surprise when the Republican Majority leader asked Netanyahu to address a join session of Congress, for the third time, to issue his marching orders.
After President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he indicated that he was working hard to resolve Iran’s nuclear dispute by peaceful means, House Speaker John A. Boehner decided to invite the head of a foreign state to address the Congress without informing the White House or even Minority Democratic leaders.
This was an act of gross discourtesy to the president, a violation of diplomatic protocol, and a clear departure from the US Constitution that puts the executive branch in charge of foreign policy and relations with foreign political leaders.
Apparently, the plot was hatched by Boehner and the Israeli Ambassador in the US Ron Dermer; Dermer is the former aide to Newt Gingrich and Republican operative who left his post and spent days closeted with Netanyahu in Israel as they prepared the text of the speech. (2) Netanyahu’s casino-king patron Sheldon Adelson who bankrolled Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, watched from a prominent position in the gallery. Dermer had also played a major role in writing Netanyahu’s speech delivered at the UN General Assembly in 2012.
In fact, even before Netanyahu rose to speak in Congress, Dermer had revealed the main arguments of the speech. (3) The fact that an American-born Republican operative can act as Israel’s ambassador to the United States is odd enough, without trying to get involved in domestic US politics on the side of one party against the US president.
An Insulting Speech
Netanyahu’s speech was deeply insulting on many fronts.
First of all, he insulted the American president by intruding in US politics and speaking openly against the main program that President Obama had announced even before coming to power. The main plank of Obama’s election campaign was that after eight years of unilateral wars during President George Bush’s term, which resulted in the biggest foreign policy blunder in the past century and led to the death and injury of tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, he would turn to diplomacy to resolve conflicts.
Netanyahu insulted the tireless US Secretary of State John Kerry who has devoted so much time and effort to the nuclear talks. He also insulted the entire negotiating team in the State Department and US technical experts who have spent hundreds of hours scrutinizing every detail of Iran’s nuclear program.
He insulted the CIA and other US intelligence organizations that ever since 2007 had declared in the NIE reports that Iran had not decided to follow a nuclear weapons path.
He also insulted the entire P5+1 – Great Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – that are also involved in the talks. Britain, France and Germany had in fact been engaged in nuclear negotiations with Iran since 2003.
In effect, he said that they were all stupid and naïve and could not understand Iran and only he possessed some special insight and wisdom that was denied to them.
He insulted the intelligence of the American people who by large margins are in favour of the deal with Iran. (4) House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a fervent supporter of Israel, spent most of the speech looking angry, and later condemned the speech as insulting and condescending. “I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech, saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5+1 nations,” she said. (5)
Netanyahu also insulted the intelligence of every peace-loving person who believes that wars are not the only way to end conflicts. After the disastrous world wars in the 20th century as the result of which the Jews also suffered horribly, and after almost non-stop wars in the current century, especially in the Middle East, most of them involving Israel, any sane person would try to find peaceful solutions to the conflicts, especially when, after 36 years of futile estrangement between Iran and the West and mutual hostility between Iran and Israel, an opportunity has been provided to resolve one of the most contentious and dangerous issues through negotiation.
Clearly every negotiation involves some give and take and no side can achieve all its demands. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, no agreement with Iran is a good one.
On Monday 2nd March, Netanyahu addressed a 16,000-strong crowd at the AIPAC conference, making some overtly racist remarks about Iranians and repeating his lies about Iran’s nuclear program.
Later, Jarrow Rogovin, one of the chief donors to AIPAC, told The Huffington Post: “They absolutely have to be bombed. If they’re not bombed, they’re going to do it,” Rogovin added, referring to the use of nuclear weapons. “You go in there, you blow the place completely apart. They’re not going to go in there and salvage the uranium. If they dare [retaliate], we can completely take them down.” (6)
This is the mentality of Netanyahu and his violent supporters.
Interfering in US Domestic Politics
By injecting himself so clumsily into American politics and by using AIPAC as a tool for the achievement of his ambitions, Netanyahu has done a great disservice to Israel and to the Jews by fracturing the so-called “bipartisan support” for Israel.
As Philip Weiss, one of the most thoughtful Jewish commentators, has pointed out the great success of Jewish lobbies in America had been due to the fact that they acted quietly and beneath the radar. Pro-Israeli lobbying was like a “night flower” that could only bloom in the dark. However, by bringing it into the glare of publicity and also involving it in partisan politics, he has weakened it. Weiss argued: “The scandal over the Netanyahu speech to Congress is in the end a story about the Jewish condition in the United States.”
By trying to show who the real boss is in US Congress, Netanyahu has exposed the tremendous power of the Jewish lobby in the United States and has inadvertently confirmed the worst accusations of those who wish to portray the Jews as controlling everything. Weiss writes: “The great news about the Netanyahu speech is that it brings the classic era of the lobby to an end… The lobby’s power is waning because people are sick of it.” (7)
In his speech to Congress, Netanyahu said that rejecting the present agreement does not mean war, but a better agreement. However, the terms that he has set out for a “better deal” included Iran having to give up any enrichment on her soil, and a number of other far-fetched conditions, which would mean total Iranian surrender to the demands of the Israeli prime minister. He knows that Iran would not give in to those demands, and therefore the only alternative left is the use of military force, and that is really what he has in mind. (8)
In fact, Netanyahu threatened a unilateral Israeli war against Iran, in his statement “even if Israel stands alone, the Jewish people will not remain passive.”
He seems to be totally impervious to international law. According to the NPT, which contrary to Israel Iran has joined, all the member states are allowed to have access to the full range of nuclear activities for peaceful purposes. There are a large number of countries, in addition to the nuclear states, that possess enrichment capability, including Japan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Germany and the Netherlands. Nobody has demanded that they should give up their enrichment activities, but Netanyahu wishes to make an exception of Iran.
The great irony is that Israel is a country that not only has not joined the NPT, but has also amassed an arsenal of nuclear weapons through deceit and theft of enriched uranium and technology from a number of countries. Iran and a number of other Middle Eastern countries have long called for the establishment of a nuclear-free Middle East. Israel has been the only country that has blocked all the talks for setting up such a zone.
Netanyahu’s lies about Iran’s nuclear program
For at least the past twenty-three years, Netanyahu has been saying that Iran would have a nuclear bomb within two, three or four years. As early as 1992, he predicted that Iran would be able to produce a nuclear weapon within three to five years. (9)
In 1993, Netanyahu claimed that Iran would have a nuclear bomb by 1999. (10) In September 2012, he stood in front of world leaders at the United Nations warning that Iran could have a bomb within a year. The interesting point is that his claim was contradicted by the head of Mossed, who said that there was no indication that Iran was moving towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons. (11)
Netanyahu has not only tried to incite war against Iran, he even made the same false claims prior to the Iraq war.
Appearing before Congress in 2002, Netanyahu said: “There’s no question that [Saddam] has not given up on his nuclear program, not [sic] whatsoever. There is also no question that he was not satisfied with the arsenal of chemical and biological weapons that he had and was trying to perfect them constantly… So I think, frankly, it is not serious to assume that this man, who 20 years ago was very close to producing an atomic bomb, spent the last 20 years sitting on his hands. He has not. And every indication we have is that he is pursuing, pursuing with abandon, pursuing with every ounce of effort, the establishment of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu went on to tell Congress that he believed “that even free and unfettered inspections will not uncover these portable manufacturing sites of death” – referring to centrifuges Iraq was supposedly using to produce nuclear weapons. In other words: nothing short of war was going to stop this Iraqi threat. (12)
What credibility does this man possess that he is invited to the joint session of Congress to repeat the same lies? Those who invited him have undermined their own credibility and have demeaned the dignity of the US Congress. It is not surprising that the American people have such a low opinion of Congress whose popularity is barely above single digits.
Iran’s Control of Four Capitals
In his speech, Netanyahu claimed: “In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked more will surely follow.” Understatement is not one of Netanyahu’s strong points, but such a wild generalization is truly mind-boggling.
Saddam Hussein waged a deadly eight-year war against Iran, with Western support, which killed and wounded more than a million Iranians. When he was deposed as the result of the US invasion in 2003, the majority Shi’is who constitute over 75 per cent of the Arab Iraqis were freed from Saddam’s sectarian brutality and became the dominant force in the new government.
Nevertheless, Iraqis are very independently minded and would strongly resent the idea that they are dominated by Iran.
A deadly civil war has been raging in Syria for more than three years between the foreign-supported and financed terrorists and the Syrian government.
Some reports have recently been published about the support that Israel has been providing to the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra terrorists. (13) According to a UN report, the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDPF) has detected contacts between the rebels and the Israeli army across the Golan ceasefire line, particularly during fierce clashes between the Syrian army and the rebels. (14)
According to one rebel who was active in some clashes against the Syrian army, coordination increased between rebels and the Israeli army before the eruption of the southern front in Daraa and Quneitra last September. He told Al-Monitor: “The battle to capture Quneitra on Sept. 27 was preceded by coordination and communications between Abu Dardaa, a leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Israeli army to pave the way for the attack. And according to an FSA commander who partly participated in this battle, the Israeli army provided Abu Dardaa with maps of the border area and the Syrian army’s strategic posts in the southern area.”
He added, “During the clashes, the Israelis heavily bombarded many of the regime’s posts, shot down a warplane that was trying to impede the progress of the fighters and targeted other aircraft.” (15) When Israel provides logistical, military and medical assistance to the terrorists that have morphed into the most deadly terrorist group IS, is it so wrong for Iran, alongside the US and the Coalition, to provide some assistance to the Syrian government to fight against those terrorists?
In Lebanon, Hizballah was formed after the massive Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which killed and maimed thousands of the Lebanese and caused a huge amount of material damage. Hizballah’s primary goal was to resist the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which lasted until May 2000.
Although Hizballah has clearly engaged in terrorist activities, it has grown to a political and military organization with seats in the Lebanese government and parliament. It seems to enjoy strong support among the Lebanese Shi’a population, and although it has undoubtedly received some support from Iran, it is only a part of the Lebanese political landscape. To claim that Iran controls Beirut is another clear exaggeration and ignores the role that the pro-Saudi March 14 Alliance plays in Lebanon.
The same exaggeration and oversimplification is true about the claim regarding Iran’s alleged control of Sana’a. The history of Yemen during the past few decades has been very complex, and power has changed hands a number of times among various groups. Saudi Arabia has long been the dominant force in Yemen and traditionally Iran has played a minor role there. Zeidi Shi’ites in Yemen, which form over a third of the population, do not belong to the same branch of Shiite Islam as most Iranians and historically have had no contacts with Iranian Shi’is. They are a local Yemeni movement reacting against Sunni dominance of politics. (16)
The Sunnis who constitute about two-thirds of Yemen’s population are strongly supported by Saudi Arabia. The emergence of the “Arab Spring” in Yemen resulted in the ousting of President Ali Abdallah Saleh who fled to Saudi Arabia and was replaced by his deputy Abdurabuh Mansour Hadi. Due to rivalry between various Yemeni groups and the strong presence of Al Qaeda in the south of the country, the Houthis again formed an alliance with the former President Saleh and occupied Sana’a, and President Hadi fled to Aden and continues his opposition to the Houthis. From all accounts, it seems that the developments in Yemen are due to local rivalries, and the outcome is still far from clear.
To describe the complex situation in Yemen as Iran’s gobbling up of Sana’a is another gross oversimplification. (17)
In a bizarre twist, Netanyahu tried to portray himself as the champion of Arab regimes by calling on Iran not to threaten her Arab neighbors. Although some Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, see Iran as their rival, unfortunately they see Israel as their real enemy. An editorial in al-Medina newspaper published in Jeddah ridiculed Netanyahu’s insistence that he had travelled to Washington out of concern for Israel’s security and not to boost his prospects ahead of elections later this month. The editorial said it was ironic that he spoke of Israel’s need for security despite “hundreds of (Israeli) massacres against Palestinians and Arabs over more than six decades.”
Using the Bible to Attack Iran
In his attempt to demonize Iran, Netanyahu is prepared to even distort the Hebrew Bible and play with the beliefs of Jewish and Christian believers. In his address to Congress, Netanyahu boasted: “We are an ancient people. In our 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people. Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies.”
The way he tells the story of this ancient tale shows that either he or those who wrote his speech for him have not read the Book of Esther, or he is deliberately distorting the story.
The story is about a Jewish girl called Esther who becomes queen of Persia. A minister in the court of the so-called Ahasuerus, who is usually identified either as Xerxes or Artaxerxes, called Haman who by the way was an Amalekite and not a Persian, due to a personal quarrel with a Jew known as Mordecai decided to kill not only Mordecai but all the Jews in the empire. Esther learned of the plot and interceded with the Persian king, who ordered Haman to be hanged instead of Mordecai. The king allowed the Jews to defend themselves during the attacks by the Amalekites, as the result of which 500 attackers and Haman’s ten sons were killed in Shushan, followed by a Jewish slaughter of 75,000 Persians.
Is this really a model that the prime minister wishes to use for inter-state relations in the 21st century?
If so, why not quote some more pertinent verses from the Bible about mass slaughter: “Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will fill all the inhabitants of this land, even the kings that sit upon David’s throne, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with drunkenness. And I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the LORD: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them.” (18)
As a secular Jew, Prime Minister Netanyahu may not know that 14 books of the Bible have either directly dealt with an event which happened in Iran, or have references to Iran.
There are seven books out of the 14, which are in the form of memoirs of the Jews in the courts of the Medes and the Achaemenid, while seven others refer to events which happened in Iran.
The Book of Esther belongs to the first category. In Jeremiah we have the reference to the Medes as God’s sword against the enemies of Israel. Ezekiel is about the period of exile in Babylon, which was ended with Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon. In Ezra there is the story of the rebuilding of the temple with the assistance of Cyrus and Darius. In Isaiah there are many complimentary references to Cyrus and God’s support for him.
The book of Daniel is about the period of his service at the court of Darius and the forecasts that he made for that king. Daniel’s beautiful tomb in Iran is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims and Jews alike. The book of Nehemiah is about the story of the cupbearer and confidante of Ardeshir who is called Artashasanta in the Bible. In Zechariah we again have the story of the rebuilding of the Temple on the orders of Darius.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu studies the Bible he will see that it refers to both Cyrus and Darius as the “anointed”. Cyrus freed the Jews from captivity when he conquered Babylon and helped them return home and build the second temple.
Time to Open a New Chapter
The language that both Iranian and Israeli leaders use about each other is harsh, ugly and counter-productive. As two people who have had a long history of friendly relations over millennia, it is time for them to put the short-lived political differences aside and try to deal with the real challenges that the world is facing, namely the scourge of terrorism and religious and sectarian conflicts.
If for the time being, it is too much to ask the Iranian leaders to recognize the State of Israel as a state for a Middle Eastern people who have been driven back to their ancestral home as the result of European persecution and genocide, one can at least ask Iran to agree with the Arab initiative to recognize Israel provided that they return to the pre-1967 borders.
That proposal was approved by all the 22 members of the Arab League. It was later also approved by all the 57 members of the Islamic Cooperation Organization, including Iran. Iranian officials have often said that they would accept any agreement that the Palestinians may reach with Israel. It would be good if they could announce it formally as their policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict.
At the same time, instead of constant incitement to attacks, bombings and war against Iran, it would be more productive if the Israelis could put their weight behind President Obama’s decision to find a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program and to bring Iran back to the community of nations. A country that is closer to America and more engaged in international relations would pose a lesser risk to Israel than one that is isolated and under constant fear of attack.
As the great Iranian mystic poet Rumi says: “Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
1. See “Statements by PM Netanyahu and Senator Lindsey Graham”, Prime Minister’s Office.
2. See Gary Sick, Netanyahu’s Speech, March 3, 2015.
3. See Marsha B. Cohen, “Fact-Checking Bibi and Company’s Talking Points on Iran”, LobeLog, February 2, 2015.
4. See Steven Kull and Shibley Telhami, “What Americans really think about an Iran deal”, The Washington Post, March 3, 2015.
5. Nancy Pelosi Says Netanyahu’s ‘insulting’ Speech Had Her ‘Near Tears’, Bloomberg Politics.
6. “The Toughest Job at AIPAC: Selling Iran Diplomacy”, The Huffington Post, March 4, 2015.
7. Philip Weiss, “Netanyahu’s speech and the American Jewish condition”, Mondoweiss, March 1, 2015.
8. See Phyllis Bennis, “Netanyahu Threatens War in Speech to Congress”, Common Dreams, March 3, 2015.
9. See: Scott Peterson, “Imminent Iran nuclear threat? A timeline of warnings since 1979”, The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 2011.
10. See “Netanyahu in 1993: Iran will have bomb by 1999”, YNet, March 4, 2015.
11. See: Dan Friedman, “Benjamin Netanyahu claim on Iran nuclear bomb was contradicted by Israel intelligence agency Mossad: Report”, February 23, 2015.
12. See “Iraq 2002, Iran 2012: Compare and contrast Netanyahu’s speeches”, Haaretz, October 4, 2012.
13. See “Israel Working with Al Qaeda?” LobeLog, February 28, 2015.
14. See “Are Israel, Jabhat al-Nusra coordinating on attacks in Syria?” Al-Monitor, January 14, 2015.
16. See Juan Cole, “Yemen: Saudi backs Sunni revolution against Shiite Houthi Rebels linked to Iran”, Informed Comment, Feb 22, 2015.
17. For a more nuanced study of the situation in Yemen, see “A Passing Generation of Yemeni Politics” by Asher Orkaby, Brandeis University, Crown Center for Middle East, Studies March 2015
18. Jeremiah 13:13-14.