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Phyllis Bennis says the invitation issued to Netanyahu to speak in the US Congress, and the call for more sanctions against Iran, is a call for war

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel is already under a great deal of diplomatic criticism for muscling himself to the front of the rally of world leaders following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. And this week he’s caught up in more turmoil–across the Atlantic this time. He’s under criticism for accepting an invitation to speak in Congress without the involvement of the White House. Breaking all diplomatic norms, John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the house, invited the prime minister. Now President Obama is refusing to meet with the Prime Minister. Now joining us to talk about all of this is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of many books, and the latest among them is Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer and Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Thank you so much for joining us, Phyllis. PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you. PERIES: So, Phyllis, breaking all diplomatic protocols, why did Boehner invite Prime Minister Netanyahu, and why is he coming? BENNIS: Well, there’s clearly a partisan double-play going on here with Boehner’s invitation. At home, the politics at home, this was a deliberate snub to President Obama within hours after his State of Union address, announcing that the Congress, without any consultation with the White House, was inviting to come to speak to a joint session of Congress the leader of Israel, who knowingly has a deliberately opposing view to the Obama administration on what to do about the negotiations underway with Iran. There’s also a partisan effort underway in Israel, where Netanyahu faces a serious election, a seriously challenging election, in March. It would be just two weeks after he comes to Washington. And, clearly, he sees this as a way of increasing his popularity among some who have thought that he is undermining the relationship with United States. But I think what’s more important here than the partisan aspect is the really serious danger that this poses on the question of the Iran negotiations. You know, Sharmini, we’re facing right now two deadlines that are coming pretty quick. One of them is March 1. That’s only two days before the Netanyahu visit is scheduled. And that’s the first of two deadlines. The other is July 1. And in those two deadlines, the negotiations with Iran have some good possibility of succeeding, but there’s no guarantees here. These are very, very difficult negotiations. And what’s clear is that by undermining the negotiations, by calling, as Netanyahu will, for additional new sanctions, there is an immediate danger of a war with Iran. The people supporting new sanctions are supporting war. It’s really that serious. And I think that one of the things that we’re facing right now–it’s important that President Obama said that he would veto any resolution for new sanctions, but he didn’t go far enough, I think, in saying that those who are calling for sanctions are calling for war. PERIES: Clearly Israel wants to be the regional dominant leader, and Iran is competing with them on this front. How is this playing out locally for him? BENNIS: Well, I think that what we really are seeing is a situation where if Iran at some point in the future did what they have not done so far, according to all U.S. intelligence agencies, and apparently the Mossad as well, which has already challenged Prime Minister Netanyahu and said they did not think there should be new sanctions and then they pulled that back when it was announced publicly that they had said such a thing to U.S. members of Congress, there’s unanimity in the intelligence community that Iran has not even made a decision about whether or not they want to build a nuclear weapon. But despite that, Netanyahu is making the claim that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, something that is simply not the case. And what is threatened: he claims it’s an existential threat to the state of Israel. It isn’t, and it would be. What it would be, if Iran decided to go that route at some point in the future, it would be a threat to Israel’s nuclear monopoly. That’s what what’s at stake here. Israel is the only nuclear armed country in the region. Nobody talks about that very much. And, in fact, U.S. officials have agreed, for many administrations now, that they will not violate the Israeli request of what they call strategic ambiguity, meaning they will not confirm or deny what everyone in the world knows, which is a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, high-density nuclear weapons, at the Dimona nuclear plant in Israel. That reality is completely destabilizing in the region. It’s one of the reasons for the regional arms race that Israel, ironically enough, makes the claim could happen if Iran ever got a nuclear weapon, that there would be a regional arms race. Well, I’m sorry, but the regional arms race is already underway because Israel has nuclear weapons. So the arms race is already off and running. What we’re looking at here is a situation in which Netanyahu is trying to win the next election to become the Prime Minister again. He’s trying to assert the Israeli preeminence on a military scale in the region by, among other things, remaining the only nuclear weapons country in the region. And, of course, while all of those accusations go forward, as long as he can claim that Iran represents an existential threat to Israel, the chances that the U.S. is going to engage in serious pressure on Israel regarding Palestine and Israel’s policies of occupation and apartheid, that becomes less likely. When Israel plays the victim, serious pressure becomes even less likely than it ever was before. PERIES: Phyllis, now, President Obama has indicated that he will likely not meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he comes. How do you think that is going to play out in the U.S.? BENNIS: Well, Netanyahu has far more support in Congress than he does among the American people. I think there’s a lot of antagonism among ordinary Americans for seeing how this leader of a very small country that gets $3.2 billion of our tax money going straight to its military every year treats our president as if he were nothing, treats him in a completely disrespectful way. Now, in Congress it’s a very different story. We will see standing ovation after standing ovation when Netanyahu appears there. My guess is the Republicans will orchestrate it so that he gets more standing ovations than President Obama did during his State of Union. I’m sure someone was counting, and they will make sure that Netanyahu gets more. One of the dangerous things we have to recognize here is that the influence of Israel and the concern about being nice to Bibi Netanyahu is not simply a partisan issue. Right now it’s more the Republicans. But there are plenty of Democrats who are very committed to this issue. And if we look at the remarks that were made just a couple of days ago, for example, by Senator Menendez, who made an outrageous, completely false statement about Iran, claiming–first he said that President Obama, from his own party, he nearly called him a traitor, essentially. What he said was that President Obama had said things that sounded like talking points straight from Tehran. He said that about his own president from his own party. And then he went on to talk about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, completely denying the reality that there is only one nuclear weapons power in the region, and it’s not Iran, it’s Israel. So this is a bipartisan problem that we face here. This is not just a partisan issue. Certainly Boehner’s invitation has all the hallmarks of a partisan attack on Obama. But this is not just about partisan politics. This is a serious challenge for those of us who want an entirely different kind of foreign policy, one in terms of Iran that based on negotiations and not based on war. We have a huge challenge ahead of us, a lot of work to do, to ensure in both parties that this outrageous kind of mindless support for anything that Netanyahu says, anything that Israel wants, somehow trumps the foreign-policy interests of the United States. This is a bipartisan problem, and it’s going to take a bipartisan effort to defeat it. PERIES: Phyllis, a public opinion research poll conducted by security studies at University of Maryland showed that there’s a clear majority of Americans, including six out of ten Republicans, support a negotiated settlement with Iran. What do you think of these results, given that Netanyahu’s supposed reason for coming to the United States is to generate more blockades or more sanctions against Iran? BENNIS: I think it always depends on how you ask the question. If you tell people the truth and say the choice is either negotiation or war, everybody will say negotiation. If you say that the issue is should we negotiate something that could leave Iran with some part of a nuclear power program that some people say 30 years from now maybe could become a weapons program? Even something like that, people will say, oh, I don’t know if we want to have negotiations based on that. So it really depends on how you ask the question. But when people are serious and understand the danger, understand the danger of undermining these talks–you know, in Tehran there’s also a hardline contingent that is trying to undermine the talks, that’s trying to undermine President Rouhani. In that sense, President Rouhani and President Obama both have right-wing extremist elements inside and outside their parliaments and congress that they have to deal with. If the negotiations collapse, there is a very serious danger that hardliners in both sides will gain the upper hand and the possibility of a military interaction between the U.S. and Iran becomes a very serious threat. PERIES: Right. Alright. We’ll be watching this issue in the months to come leading up to the visit, and we’ll come back to you, Phyllis, for further analysis. BENNIS: I look forward to it. Thanks. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.