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Ali Abunimah, editor of Electronic Intifada, says Netanyahu is playing to the extreme Israeli right, Christian evangelical Zionists, and attempting to prepare conditions for war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress on Tuesday. Here’s a little bit of what he said. ~~~ BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: In our nearly 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 of a powerful Persian viceral 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 gained for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. The plot was foiled. Our people were saved. Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, spews the oldest hatred, the oldest hatred of anti-Semitism with the newest technology. ~~~ JAY: Now joining us to talk about Netanyahu’s speech is Ali Abunimah. Ali is cofounder of the award-winning online publication the Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. He’s the author also of The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Thanks for joining us, Ali. ALI ABUNIMAH, COFOUNDER, ELECTRONIC INTIFADA: Thank you, Paul. JAY: So what do you make of his opening and a thread throughout the speech that this is virtually a struggle of biblical proportions with a source of biblical evil? ABUNIMAH: Well, the big irony about that is that Netanyahu tried to present Israel as the modern, rational democratic state and Iran as being a dark, medieval violent, ancient state. He referred to the Persian bazaar, as well as the Bible. But, of course, the irony is that he’s presenting these Bible myths to Congress as if they’re real history. And, of course, part of the purpose of this is to demonize Iran and to place this in a biblical context, which many of the radical Christians in Congress are very receptive to because of their theological view of the world, rather than a modern political view, and so to exclude the possibility of politics, to say nothing you can do with this ancient biblical conflict will make a difference, so don’t even try. And the other part of it, as I mentioned, was demonizing Iran and relying very much on Islamophobia, which is really at unprecedented heights in this country, again to exclude the possibility of politics. JAY: He makes–he equates ISIS with Iran. He says they are competing for leadership of militant Islam. What do you make of that? ABUNIMAH: Well, it might appeal to the members of Congress who are, of course, not very well versed in what’s actually happening in the region and in the world. But the reality, of course, is that Iran is at war with ISIS, and in geopolitical terms, Iran and the United States are aligned with each other in the war against ISIS. So that’s probably not a message that will impress anyone in the White House. JAY: Netanyahu’s point here, if I understand it correctly, is the reason Iran is fighting ISIS is only so it can be the leader of militant Islam. ABUNIMAH: Well, again, that’s a position that would only appeal to people without any knowledge of what’s happening. Iran is not engaged in a militant struggle to lead militant Islam. It’s engaged in a geopolitical struggle to preserve the regime in Iraq, which is also backed by the United States, and also to support the regime in Syria, which–Iran does not want to see it toppled. So, again, these are political conflicts, not ones about religion. But this is–again, Netanyahu is appealing to the fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims that has been cultivated in the United States by many of the same members of Congress who are listening to Netanyahu to say it’s all this big morass, and if we make a deal with Iran, then we’re in effect supporting so-called militant Islam. JAY: Yeah. One of the big themes of the speech is that Iran is gobbling up countries, and he goes through the various countries he says they control the capitals of, Lebanon being one. He quotes Nazrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. ~~~ NETANYAHU: For those who believe that Iran threatens the Jewish state but not the Jewish people, listen to Hassan Nazrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, Iran’s chair chief terrorist proxy. He said, if all the Jews gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of chasing them down around the world. ~~~ JAY: We did a little checking into that quote, it is far as we can tell, Hezbollah denied that Nasrallah ever said that. The editor of the newspaper, The Beirut Star, one of their translators translated a speech where they said Nazrallah said that the editor of The Beirut Star apparently has denounced that, said that’s not a correct translation, and that there’s in fact no record of Nasrallah saying that. Do you know anything about all of this? ABUNIMAH: I believe that’s right. And there’s a whole industry of producing fake quotes from Hassan Nasrallah and others. But the bigger point here is that the reality is that Israel makes deals with Hezbollah indirectly, but they make deals with Hezbollah over ceasefires, over prisoner exchanges, and they know that when they make a deal with Hezbollah, that deal is going to hold. And right now, of course, Israel has a ceasefire deal and sort of rules of engagement with Hezbollah, and which just shows that what Netanyahu says to Congress is very different from how Israel actually behaves, because Israel deals with Hezbollah as a rational actor with which it can make agreements–not a friend, by any means. They are enemies. But they’re enemies that make agreements, and by and large Hezbollah abides by them. It’s Israel that is constantly, as the UN documents, violating Lebanon’s airspace on a regular basis. But the bigger point here, what Netanyahu is trying to tell Congress and the American public, is you can’t make deals with Iran, these are irrational people, these are crazy people, they’re not like us. I mean, there’s not much to laugh about in this situation, but it was funny when Netanyahu talked about Iran gobbling up countries. You know, Paul, did you hear Netanyahu burping from swallowing yet more Palestinian land in the West Bank after he talked about Iran gobbling up countries? I thought I heard him burp. JAY: Well, his definition of terrorism is anyone the picks up arms in contrary to the military and political strategy. But the Congress was–stood up and stood up and stood up. There were a lot of Republicans. Sixty Democrats didn’t show up, although most of them didn’t show up ’cause they didn’t like the politics of this. I think many of them did stand up last time Netanyahu was in Congress. But there seems to be, at least congressionally, enthusiastic support for all of this rhetoric. But there are some fissures in the American approach to Israel that maybe we haven’t seen before. What do you make of them? ABUNIMAH: I think that’s right. And it’s important to put this in perspective. First of all, a piece I wrote for The Huffington Post and The Electronic Intifada a few days ago made a point that I think has been missed in much of this, is that all this talk of rancor between Obama and Netanyahu can obscure the reality that there is no rift between Obama and Netanyahu or the U.S. and Israel when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu noted in his speech, as Obama administration officials have done this week, how closely the Obama administration and Israel have worked hand-in-hand against the Palestinians at every level, whether it was the Obama administration’s full support, military and diplomatic, for the massacre in Gaza last summer, whether it was the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure the impunity of Israeli political and military leaders by sabotaging international investigations. Netanyahu acknowledged Obama’s full assistance in Israel’s war against the Palestinians, and Democratic leaders have gone out and said that too. And many Democrats [incompr.] standing up when Netanyahu applauded Obama’s assistance to Israel against the Palestinians. So that hasn’t changed. That’s not going to change. But it’s clear that Netanyahu came to Congress to sabotage, to sabotage the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran. It was very, very clear. I was watching it on CNN. And they said that the response from the White House was swift and harsh–those were the words CNN used. And they said that the White House dismissed this as a repetition of previous talking points and nothing new. And that’s all true to an extent. But I think what we really have to remember is we have to not just look at the immediate about what’s happening, but step back and say, why is Israel in this position where its prime minister can barge into Congress, be welcomed more warmly than an American president, and essentially issue these diktats to the American administration, or try to, and attempt to sabotage U.S. policy in this way? And the blame for that, the responsibility for that lies entirely with the American political establishment. It’s not even the Israel lobby. Let’s put the blame where it lies. It’s on the American political establishment that has indulged Israel all along. The Obama administration has indulged Israel from its first day. And the message they’ve sent time and again is Israel, you can do whatever you want, not just to the Palestinians, but even undermine U.S. plans and interests in the region, and we will have your back. There will be no consequences. The money will continue. The weapons will continue. The brand-new F-35 fighter jets will be coming your way. So the message the Obama administration has sent to Israel is: you can do what you like. And so, in that context, why shouldn’t Netanyahu behave this way? Ultimately the responsibility comes back to Obama. JAY: And does it not also come back to the very basic approach of the United States to the Middle East–and, of course, not only the Middle East–that the United States policy assumes it must be the hegemon of the Middle East and will have pillars of power, allies, whether it’s Israel or Saudi Arabia or Egypt? Once it was Iran, and they would love it to be again. But if you have a fundamental assumption that the United States has to be the uber power here, then you need, you like this, [what] some people have called Israel, as a sort of floating aircraft carrier–land-based aircraft carrier. You need these kinds of military allies to maintain this kind of policy. And then you put yourself into the position that you just described. ABUNIMAH: Well, you’re right to but the responsibility back on the United States and its imperial project in the Middle East, because that’s what it is. And Israel figures into that. Sometimes Israel is an asset to that imperial project, and sometimes it’s an obstacle. Now, in the case of U.S. and Iranian rapprochement, Israel is something of an obstacle. The U.S. has decided for its own imperial hegemonic reasons that a rapprochement with Iran would be beneficial to the United States, and Israel sees that as a threat to its own position. And we saw that in Netanyahu’s call for effectively indeterminate and indefinite sanctions on Iran to continue, basically, forever. So it does come down to that. And when you look at what’s happening in the region more broadly, of course, ISIS, this horrific group that’s taken over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, is its emergence as a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and of U.S. intervention in Syria. And so we see time and again that we’re dealing with the consequences of the U.S. trying to maintain its hegemonic position. JAY: Do you think the Republicans are overplaying a hand here? Are they not vulnerable, even amongst their own base, to accusations that–this idea that–the tail wagging the dog, that Israel’s determining U.S. foreign policy? I mean, I think what we’ve just talked about, I don’t think that’s entirely true. It’s very much in American strategic interests. At the same time, there is some of that happening right now over Iran. And the Republicans, shouldn’t they be a little worried about their own base, who are not necessarily–love Jews so much, to be honest about it? ABUNIMAH: Well, there is, of course, within Congress and within the Republican base there is a very large, significant, radical, Christianist tendency. I mean, I’ve been driving across the country, and when you listen to the FM dial in any part of the country, it’s–on the radio, it is just wall-to-wall radical Christianity, fear mongering, antiscience, anti-rationality. This is what’s being fed to large sums of people in this country. You realize that when you are exposed to some of this popular media. And so, for–of course, that feeds into Christian Zionism, which doesn’t require anyone to have great love for Jews, but it does require them to have great love for Israel because of this radical theology which hopes to bring about Armageddon and sees Israel as being central to that plan. But I do think that there is a sort of a space for a kind of American nationalist backlash which says that Israel is interfering with U.S. politics, interfering with U.S. foreign policy. And we have seen some of that in the discourse about Netanyahu’s speech. It’s sort of a I’m more patriotic than thou, or even an I love Israel more than thou, because that argument which says that Netanyahu’s speech and the politicizing of support for Israel harms the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Of course, I think that support for Israel should be politicized. It is part of politics. But the argument I would make is that U.S. support for Israel is very damaging to millions and millions of human beings who are victims of Israel’s apartheid regime, which could not continue, of course, without the bipartisan political support that this had for so long. JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Ali. ABUNIMAH: My pleasure. Thank you. JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Ali Abunimah is co-founder of the award-winning online publication The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. His latest book is titled The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Based in Chicago, he has written hundreds of articles on the question of Palestine in major publications including The New York Times, The Guardian and for Al Jazeera.