Netanyahu and Iran’s “Bomb”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally given his much ballyhooed speech to the U.S. Congress, and the heavens haven’t fallen.

He issued the same bloodcurdling warning that Iran is on the brink of getting nuclear weapons that he has been making for 20 years now, and nobody called him on it. Instead, the Republican members of Congress, and those Democrats who bothered to show up, gave him the usual standing ovations.

President Barack Obama was deeply miffed by Netanyahu’s attack on his policy of negotiating with Iran, and refused to meet him while he was in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry was so outraged by Netanyahu’s assertion that the deal he is working on with Iran could “pave its way to the bomb” rather than block it that he publicly said the Israeli prime minister “might not be correct.”

It is unprecedented for an American president to refuse to meet a visiting Israeli prime minister, or for a senior U.S. official to suggest that the aforesaid prime minister might be wrong, but the reflexive American support for Israel will survive for quite a while yet. And Netanyahu’s gamble may pay off in extra votes for his Likud Party in the Israeli election on the 17th, which is what the visit was really about.

Netanyahu knows his Israelis, and he has been playing successfully on their existential fear that somebody else in the Middle East might also get nuclear weapons ever since he entered politics.

Israelis don’t really require proof that the Iranians (or anybody else) are actually working on such weapons. Indeed, their anxiety on the issue is so deep-rooted that it resists all the reassurances by Israel’s own military and intelligence communities that Iran is not working on nuclear weapons.

Last week, a cache of secret documents about South African contacts with other countries’ secret services was leaked to al-Jazeera. It included a 2012 cable from Israel’s Mossad intelligence service saying that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce [nuclear] weapons.” Did the Israeli public heave a great sigh of relief? Certainly not.

Last Sunday, 180 former generals and commanders of the Israeli Defence Forces, Mossad intelligence agency, Shin Bet domestic security and National Police held a joint news conference begging Netanyahu not to damage the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship further by making his inflammatory anti-Obama speech in Congress. Did ordinary Israelis join in the outcry? They did not.

Polling shows that two-thirds of Israelis would like to see the back of Netanyahu, mainly because he has presided over a huge rise in the cost of living, and especially the cost of housing. But on security issues a majority of Israelis are with him—so naturally those are the issues he concentrates on.

The Israelis are probably wrong to worry so much about Iranian nuclear weapons. There were two periods during which Iran seriously considered making nuclear weapons and did some preliminary work on weapons design and uranium enrichment, but in neither case was it about Israel.

The first time was in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran (with American backing) in a war that ultimately cost a quarter-million Iranian lives. At that time Saddam actually was working on Iraqi nuclear weapons, and Iran felt obliged to follow suit.

But after Saddam was defeated by Western and Arab armies in the Gulf War of 1990-91 and the United Nations inspectors went in to dismantle Iraq’s nuclear programme, the Iranians lost interest in developing their own nuclear weapons. Then they got alarmed again and restarted the programme in 1998 when another neighbour, Pakistan, tested its own first nuclear weapons.

They didn’t make much progress, but they kept on working at the problem in a desultory way until 2002, when an anti-regime terrorist group called Mujahedin-e-Khalq (partly financed by Israel) revealed the existence of the weapons programme and Tehran shut it down. And for the past 13 years, nothing.

The great danger Netanyahu faces is not Iranian nuclear weapons but ejection from office by Israeli voters. His response has been the same as always: to promote himself as the only man who can keep Israel safe—even if that means burning his bridges with an American president who still has two more years in office.

In terms of his own interests, he may be making the right call. His right-wing Likud Party and the centre-left coalition called the Zionist Camp have been running neck-and-neck in recent polling, but if his grandstanding in Washington brings in just a few more votes he could be back in power until the end of the decade.