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Max Blumenthal: Netanyahu concedes “red line” to Obama, but creates a culture for war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

In Washington on Monday night, Prime Minister of Israel Bibi Netanyahu spoke to the AIPAC conference, closing it. Here’s a little bit of what he said.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Now, I know that more than half of the members of Congress are in attendance here tonight. American policy is not containment. Well, Israel has exactly the same policy. We’re determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. We leave all options on the table. And containment is definitely not an option.


JAY: Now joining us to talk about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech is Max Blumenthal. Max is an award-winning journalist, a best-selling author. He’s a writing fellow at the Nation Institute. He’s a senior writer at Al Akhbar English. And he’s author of the book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. Thanks for joining us again, Max.


JAY: So what was your—first of all, your kind of general reaction to the speech, and then particularly this issue that Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama seem to have clearly come out with a formulation which is against containment, which means if there’s any sign of a bomb, there will be an attack? What’s your take on this?

BLUMENTHAL: I don’t know if that’s the way I would interpret it. And I wasn’t very surprised by much of what I saw at AIPAC. I spent last night going through AIPAC’s YouTube channel, watching video after video, looking for something remarkable. And the only thing that I could find that surprised me or startled me in any way was the opening of Netanyahu’s speech, in which he said that he will not discuss red lines, which means, you know, he’s given up on red lines, which means he’s given up on a central contention that AIPAC has with President Obama, and that he’s not going to use his speech to pressure for a shifting of the red lines, which would—and the red lines are the threshold by which the U.S. [crosstalk]

JAY: Right. Well, we’ll play that little clip here so people know what you’re talking about.


NETANYAHU: Every day, I open the newspapers and I read about all these red lines and timelines, I read about what Israel has supposedly decided to do or what Israel might do. Well, I’m not going to talk to you about what Israel will do or will not do. I never talk about that.


JAY: I think by giving up on the red lines issue, Netanyahu ceded a lot of ground to Barack Obama, because the Obama administration, kind of echoing assessments from the CIA and from the Pentagon, wanted to set the red lines at Iran’s attainment of a nuclear weapon. And nobody’s sure if Iran is even going to seek a nuclear weapon at this point.

JAY: Now, well, Obama has more or less said—but Dempsey, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, clearly said, and so did Leon Panetta say, that American intelligence is, quote, Iran has not decided yet to create a bomb. So they’ve taken the position on that.

BLUMENTHAL: Right. And meanwhile the U.S. media NPR and CNN refer to Iran’s nuclear program as its nuclear weapons program, highlighting the irresponsibility and moronic nature of the mainstream press here. But the point is that AIPAC is seeking to set the red lines at nuclear enrichment capacity. And that’s some—and Iran may go there, which means AIPAC is really explicitly pushing for war. And they have introduced legislation in Congress, a nonbinding resolution to set the red lines there.

JAY: You mean Congress men and women that support AIPAC have introduced the legislation.

BLUMENTHAL: And it’s—AIPAC has authored this legislation, sent it to Congress, and Congress will rubberstamp it. The Senate will vote on it, may vote on it 100 to nothing, just like the AIPAC-authored sanctions on Iran’s central bank against the wishes of the Obama administration. But Obama is holding the line on nuclear weapons versus nuclear enrichment capacity.

JAY: Well, Netanyahu directly attacked those voices that are essentially saying that there’s been no decision to make a bomb, which means it’s a fairly direct attack on Defense Secretary Panetta and on Dempsey. And here’s a little bit, from the speech, of what Netanyahu said.


NETANYAHU: Now, amazingly, some people refuse to acknowledge that Iran’s goal is to develop nuclear weapons. You see, Iran claims to do everything it’s doing to—that it’s enriching uranium to develop medical isotopes. Yeah, that’s right, a country that builds underground nuclear facilities, that develops Intercontinental ballistic missiles, that manufactures thousands of centrifuges, and that absorbs crippling sanctions is doing all that in order to advance medical science. So, you see, when that Iranian ICBM is flying through the air to a location near you, you’ve got nothing to worry about—it’s only carrying medical isotopes.


JAY: So, Max, Netanyahu’s taking a very direct swipe at senior administration officials, and who obviously are speaking for Obama, who are saying that there’s no decision to make a weapon. I mean, he’s saying it’s clear that there is.

BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. While giving up on the red lines, Netanyahu continues to cultivate an atmosphere of war and to cultivate his base inside the U.S. for supporting a military strike on Iran. And so you have to wonder if he’s going to go out on a limb and at least implicitly attack the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, and the Obama administration and say they’re not doing enough. It suggests that he’s building the case for a rogue Israeli strike on Iran. And I question whether Israel will be able to do that from a logistical standpoint, but Netanyahu and even Barack are so messianic at this point about what they can do that you have to wonder, if Obama gets reelected and doesn’t authorize any military action on Iran this year, whether Israel would say, look, we tried to convince you, now we give up, now it’s our turn, because they’ve gone so far out to cultivate this atmosphere of war and to cultivate the concept of a existential threat to Israel’s very existence and to the existence of the Jewish people.

JAY: Well, I think it’s interesting that in this clip that we just showed, another one I’m about to, there’s also the—more than implication, it’s essentially an assertion that there’s a threat from Iran to attack Americans. When he says, when I see a ICBM coming to a place near you, he’s looking out at an American audience. But he even gets more specific in another clip that we’re going to play now.


NETANYAHU: And Iran’s proxies have dispatched hundreds of suicide bombers, they’ve planted thousands of roadside bombs, and they’ve fired over 20,000 missiles at civilians. So through terror from the skies and terror on the ground, Iran is responsible for the murder of hundreds if not thousands of Americans.


JAY: So he’s almost kind of trying, I guess, to bring up the specter of 9/11 in some way and hope that resonates in American opinion the way they did with Iraq. Or am I missing something? Where have Americans had Iranian missiles or whatever fall from the skies on them?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, Netanyahu’s a liar. He’s always been a liar. The problem is American opinion is about the same as it was before Iraq, which is, overwhelmed by idiocy. Over 50 percent of the American public, according to a Pew poll, say that they haven’t heard enough—actually, far over 50 percent says that they haven’t heard enough about the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. The same time, over 50 percent of Americans favor a military strike on Iran. So there’s a connection between ignorance and belligerence here, and Netanyahu is catering to that.

There’s only one country in the Middle East that invades its neighbors, that, you know, is in a permanent state of war, and that routinely launches missile strikes at its neighbors, and it’s Netanyahu. And he’s trying to completely invert the reality of that. Israel supports an Iranian—at least it’s alleged to have supported an Iranian exile terror group, the People’s Mujahedin, or the MEK, which has killed Americans. And they’re using it, allegedly, to carry out assassinations inside Iran.

But from here I would turn to the speech by AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, which was ignored by the U.S. media, and which was actually far more belligerent than Netanyahu’s and more explicit in his call for war. And Howard Kohr alleged that Iran would give nuclear weapons or some kind of nuclear suitcase bombs to Nicaragua and Venezuela to use against the United States, in a primetime address before AIPAC delegates. So it’s not just Netanyahu who’s creating this fantasy threat—which reminds me, by the way, of Ronald Reagan and his warnings that the Soviet Union would invade the U.S. through tanks by land, using Nicaragua and El Salvador as a launching pad. Well, he said that during the ’80s. And these are just ridiculous threats [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, but there is a threat that perhaps Netanyahu really is concerned about if in fact there was an Iranian nuclear bomb. And I don’t think it’s about the existential threat that the Iranians would ever drop a bomb on Israel, but it is about something, and he does talk about it in the speech. Here it is.


NETANYAHU: A nuclear-armed Iran would dramatically increase terrorism by giving terrorists a nuclear umbrella. Let me try to explain to you what that means, a nuclear umbrella. It means that Iran’s terror proxies, like Hezbollah and Hamas, will be emboldened to attack the United States and Israel and others because they’ll be backed by a power that has atomic bombs. So the terrorism we see today could grow tenfold, if not more.


JAY: This clip probably really does go to the heart of what the real issues facing Netanyahu and his section of the Israeli elite is that the real issue is Hezbollah and Hamas.

BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. I mean, Hezbollah is a key issue in this, and Netanyahu’s attempting to distort Hezbollah’s real interests and its military capacity to present it as a threat to the United States. Hezbollah has not engaged in a campaign of widespread international terrorism since the late ’80s, or perhaps the early ’90s. And it’s under a totally different leadership now that has regional concerns and is seeking a place in Lebanese politics for the first time. So he’s distorting the record on Hezbollah and Hamas, which is moving out Iran’s orbit and into the orbit of the Sunni Islamists who are ascendant across the Arab world. Khaled Meshal has basically bolted from Damascus, moving himself outside of the Iranian orbit because Iran’s—Iran supported Hamas through Syria. So this is a development that’s kind of lost in Netanyahu’s hysterical warnings. And so the situation is much more complex than he’s presenting it.

And what I think he’s really doing by talking about Hezbollah and Hamas in the context of Iran is seeking to keep the Palestinian question, the Palestinian issue off the table and create a distraction. He didn’t even mention the Palestinians once in his speech. And they were almost not discussed at all at AIPAC, even in breakout sessions. And this is a real triumph for Netanyahu and for AIPAC, because they have no answer to the Palestinian question beyond slow transfer and warehousing, which are policies that even the Western diplomatic establishment finds unacceptable. The peace process is dead, the two-state solution is dead, and Iran is a perfect means for Netanyahu to unite the Israeli public and keep the Palestinians off the table.

JAY: Yeah, all the discourse about the growth of settlements in the West Bank has ended. Any—if there was ever any real pressure coming from the Obama administration on this issue, it’s all been lost in the Iran discussion.

BLUMENTHAL: So it’s a win-win for Netanyahu, because even if he doesn’t get his war, he gets more sanctions, more appeasement from the United States, and doesn’t have to deal with the Palestinians at all, and can continue presenting them as some kind of grave terrorist threat. And Obama really lost the opportunity to put them back on the table, something that would have thrown Netanyahu back on his heels.

JAY: So in terms of this division (or lack thereof, depending what side you take on the issue) between Netanyahu and Obama on this question, here’s how Netanyahu more or less ends the speech.


NETANYAHU: Of course the best outcome would be if Iran decided to abandon its nuclear weapons program peacefully. No one would be happier than me and the people of Israel if Iran dismantled its program. But so far that hasn’t happened.


BLUMENTHAL: Well, Netanyahu in his 1993 book, A Durable Peace, uses identical—absolutely identical rhetoric about Saddam Hussein and says Saddam Hussein is a nuclear threat to Israel and to the Western world. And it took ten years for him to get what he wanted, which was a U.S. invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein. Of course, the Middle East is less stable because of that.

But my point is that Netanyahu identifies these threats early. He’s closely aligned with the neoconservatives in the United States, who are actually kind of to the right of the Israel lobby. And we could be having this same conversation in five years if someone like Netanyahu or Ehud Barak is in control of the prime minister’s office. So Netanyahu could be building a long-term case for some kind of attack on Iran. I’m not sure.

I do want to point to two other things I noticed before we go. One is that Howard Kohr, the executive director of AIPAC, called for disruptive measures inside Iran, which to me translates into terrorist acts by terrorist proxies like the MEK, assassinations of scientists. He said this in the open, and the U.S. press kind of missed it. And Netanyahu compared Iran’s nuclear facilities to concentration camps like Auschwitz and invoked the Holocaust in the course of his speech. So did Howard Kohr. And this is really the most extreme—in my opinion, the most extreme and dangerous and cynical attempt to create, to establish an atmosphere of war, by playing on the most visceral trauma of Jewish people [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah, I’ll play that clip here so people know what you’re talking about. Here it is.


NETANYAHU: The year was 1944. The World Jewish Congress implored the American government to bomb Auschwitz. The reply came five days later. I want to read it to you. Quote, such an operation could be executed only by diverting considerable air support essential to the success of our forces elsewhere. And in any case, it would be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources. And, my friends, here is the most remarkable sentence of all. And I quote. Such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans. Think about that—even more vindictive action than the Holocaust.


JAY: So a fairly straightforward line from the Holocaust to Iran.

BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. And this is, you know, ignoring the true history of the Zionist movement, which cut secret deals with the Third Reich to transfer Jewish property to Palestine and essentially ignored the extermination of Jews. The Jewish establishment in the United States took a similar line and called off a boycott of Nazi Germany at the urging of the Zionist movement. And so Netanyahu’s distorting history here to present Israel is the only response to the legacy of the Holocaust and to present Ahmadinejad as a new Hitler. But he hasn’t yet—he used to do this more when he was an opposition leader, but as prime minister he hasn’t yet called Ahmadinejad Hitler or used this kind of rhetoric. So this does represent, really, a ramping up of the case for war, in my opinion, and it is very significant.

He also invoked the Jewish Purim tale, the holiday of Purim, comparing Ahmadinejad to Haman, a Syrian king who’s the villain in this tale, who seeks to threaten the Hebrews of the Bible. And he called Haman a Persian anti-Semite, and presented Esther, the queen who was sort of the hero of this tale, as, you know, a modern hero, ignoring that Esther was also Persian.

So he’s distorting and warping history, exploiting Jewish fears to create a case for war. And this is what I think the most destructive effect of his speech is is the effect on Jewish opinion in the United States.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Max.

BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.