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The tension between President Obama and Israeli PM Netanyahu is fundamentally over whether the issue of Iran and its nuclear program should be addressed through diplomacy and negotiations or absolute Iranian surrender, says Phyllis Bennis, author of “Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer”

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Controversy continues over Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming address to the U.S. Congress on March 3. High-ranking U.S. officials, including Susan Rice, say that it will be damaging to U.S.-Israeli relations. Now the administration is saying it will not even send a representative to the annual meeting of the American-Israel Public Action Committee, known as AIPAC, which is arguably the most powerful pro-Israeli lobby on the Hill. The news comes as the leaked documents from the Mossad–that is, the Israel spy agency–show a significant discrepancy between its intelligence findings and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2012 remarks to the United Nations regarding the nuclear weapons capability of Iran. And this is all breaking as negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 is going on and coming to a closure. Joining us now to discuss all of this is Phyllis Bennis. She is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer. As always, thank you for joining us, Phyllis. PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Phyllis, much of the media reports on this controversy have focused on the worsening ties between U.S. and Israel and the partisan politics of this meeting. Is this the real issue at hand? And is it an important one? BENNIS: Well, I think it is very important one. There’s certainly–there’ve been now decades [incompr.] this country by human rights activists, Palestinian activists, and others struggling to get the United States to separate out from Israel, to stop enabling Israeli violations of international law, violations of human rights, to stop supporting Israel in this unequivocal way that allows those violations to go forward. So when you have the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, and almost 40 members of Congress agreeing to boycott a speech by the Israeli leader, that is huge. That’s a really great thing. Now, having said that, that by itself is not the most important thing. There’s also the fundamental question of the Iran negotiations that you just referred to. The timing of the release of these documents, I think, has everything to do with the fear of whoever it was who leaked it. It apparently came from South Africa through–but they are Mossad documents. So whether it was Mossad people, South African intelligence people, whoever it was, appears to have been very concerned about the possibility that Netanyahu’s speech next week, on Tuesday, could in fact undermine the potential of these negotiations on Iran, which would lead, really, to the threat of war in a very direct way. So I think that although the documents in question go back to 2009, 2010, the fact that they’re being released right now has everything to do with the plan for Netanyahu’s very unpopular planned speech in Congress on Tuesday. PERIES: So, then, some policy analysts are also arguing that this kerfuffle is making the U.S. and Israel look like they’re divided, giving Iran the upper hand in the negotiations. Is there any merit to that? BENNIS: Well, I think it should be clear that the U.S. and Israel do not have the same position on Iraq. U.S. has endorsed Israeli positions on a huge amount of political realities, most importantly in most devastatingly on the question of Palestine. U.S. policy on Palestine is rooted in what is Israeli policy on Palestine. That has not, luckily, been the case on the question of Iran. The problem is both countries impose a red line. In my view that’s always a mistake. But if you have a red line, the point at which you say there is no more diplomacy and there’s no more room for diplomacy, now we’re going to talk about war, that’s a terrible thing to do. But if you do it, it matters a lot where you draw that red line. And the U.S. and Israel have not drawn their red lines at the same point. The Israeli red line arguably was reached long ago. The Israeli red line is that Iran must not be allowed to have the capacity, the capability to ever build a nuclear weapon. Now, the problem is, once you have nuclear power, enrichment of uranium, and scientists that are pretty smart and know what they’re doing, you’ve got capability. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle. The U.S. red line is not there. The U.S. red line says, we will not allow Iran to have or to get a nuclear weapon. That’s an entirely different matter. Though it’s certainly true, if this is exposing that reality, that’s all to the good. But I think the other side of this is not just about the difference between the U.S. and the Israeli red lines, but the really fundamental question of whether this is an issue that must be solved through diplomacy, through negotiations, which implies give-and-take on both sides, or whether, if you’re Bibi Netanyahu, your position is the only solution by diplomatic means is absolute Iranian surrender. And without surrender, we go to war. That’s the distinction that we’re really [incompr.] So the notion that the U.S. and Israel do not see eye to eye on this issue is very important. One of the key questions will be whether that can be moved forward to include the question of Palestine. PERIES: Now, the leaked documents, Phyllis, reveal a lot of things, including what’s going on in Israel itself, leading up to an election. What do you think–the impact this is going to have in Israel? BENNIS: Well, one of the reasons for Netanyahu pushing so hard to have this speech in Congress when it’s scheduled this coming week is that those elections are just two weeks off. The official reason for the Obama administration to say we’re not going to meet with Netanyahu is not because his stated goal is to undermine the U.S.-Iran talks, which is the real problem, but rather to say that this is too close to the Israeli elections and that it wouldn’t look good if the U.S. president meets with one of the competitors in that election. That’s really not the reason. But if he wants to say that, fine, whatever. But those selections are crucial. And one of the questions is going to be whether the position that Netanyahu has staked out, knowing that it’s now public that the Mossad opposed him–it’s been known for a long time; this isn’t a secret. But having the documents that actually, you know, in chapter and verse, explain how deeply Mossad officials at the time absolutely disagree with Netanyahu’s claims about where Iran was on this progression and towards the capacity to ever have a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu saying, oh my God, there’s a bomb–remember, at the United Nations he drew a kind of cartoon bomb and then drew a fuse on it. It was like those old Boris and Natasha cartoons that many of us grew up on in the United States during the Cold War. It was crazy. And now we see the documents, how clear it was that the Mossad and other intelligence officials really disagreed with him. But politically, Netanyahu is counting on being able to continue the claim that this is an existential threat to Israel if the United States signs off on essentially any agreement with Iran. And he is assuming that that’s going to help in the election. The question is whether that’s actually going to hurt Netanyahu’s chances and empower his electoral opponents like Tzipi Livni from the so-called Zionist Camp coalition, who represent a very important danger in many ways. These are the much more Western-oriented–they care more about Israel’s relations with the United States. They are absolutely committed to Israeli settlement processes. They are absolutely committed to the willingness to go to war against Gaza. Tzipi Livni was the foreign minister at the time of the Cast Lead war against Gaza in 2009. So the notion that these are somehow peaceniks was really a misreading of what they represent. The problem is they are much more amenable to U.S. style negotiations. But they’re willing to spend another 23 euros–we’ve just included 22 years of failed diplomacy under the auspices of the United States on the Israel-Palestine question, led by people like Tzipi Livni and her colleagues. And if they come into office, the U.S. government I’m sure will breathe a huge sigh of relief and say, ah, great, now we go back to business as usual, everybody will sit down at the table, all international pressure will be off the agenda, and everybody can relax and continue talking, talking, talking for another 23 years, while the theft of land, the slaughter of people in Gaza, the siege of Gaza, the occupation continued and continues today. PERIES: Phyllis, the leaked documents also say that the Iranian leadership pulled back on its nuclear program when it was discovered by other states that it is working to preserve the technical capacity to renew later on and develop a weapon. Now, if this is true, this seemed to indicate that the Israel spy agency believes that Iran still does intend to pursue a nuclear weapon. What do you make of that? BENNIS: I think we are left a little bit uncertain whether the Mossad and the other of the Israeli spy agencies actually believe that Iran intends to move forward in building a bomb. They’re looking at the very technical question of the capacity at some point in the future. I think that what’s important to recognize here is the commitment that Iranian governments, successive governments, really since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, starting with the grand Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, all the governments have been very clear that they are opposed to Iran building a nuclear weapon. Now, U.S. officials will say, oh, that’s nothing, that’s just, you know, for domestic consumption. But what that leaves out–and I don’t know where the Israeli spies come down on this, whether they recognize it or not–the Iranian government has to be elected. It is made up of political actors who are worried about their constituents, just like political actors here in the United States. The Iranian president right now, the Iranian foreign minister, have right-wing hardliners in the parliament, just like President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry had right-wingers in the parliament–on both parties, we should note–who are trying to undermine the possibility of a negotiated solution. So I think that we don’t know exactly where the Mossad stands. But what I think is important to recognize is that the Iranian leadership does have to be accountable to public opinion. The fact that they’ve now had more than a generation of Iranians growing up with the understanding that possession or creation of a nuclear weapon, let alone using a nuclear weapon, would be an absolute violation of Islamic law. Now, whether or not the U.S. thinks that’s important, it would be a very difficult thing for any Iranian political leader to somehow try and reverse that, to stand up one day and say, you know what? We were wrong. Islamic Law does allow the creation of a nuclear weapon. You know, that would not be an easy thing. It’s not to say it could never happen. Things change, political actors change, all kinds of things, for sure. But we do have to keep in mind that this is a kind of commitment that has been made by every single Iranian government since the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah, and in that context, not such an easy thing, to build up the public opinion to support the creation of a nuclear weapon in Iran. PERIES: So, Phyllis, what’s being played out in terms of partisan politics is one thing. How is it being received by the Jewish community, these divisions here right in the United States? BENNIS: Well, you know, I think that Netanyahu has really undermined his own positioning in the U.S.-Jewish community. There’s been a huge set of splits in the Jewish community over the last decade or so, and more power than ever in the last three or four years, where you now have, like in every other community, a left, a right, a center. You have a right wing coalesced around APAC and around Netanyahu, for whom he can do no wrong. The center around J Street is very critical of Netanyahu. And then you have a real left, mobilized mostly around Jewish Voice for Peace, who are absolutely opposed to the policies of the Israeli government. So you have this real set of divides, which means that Netanyahu cannot count on unequivocal support from the Jewish community. And that’s playing out in a very overt way, with major mainstream Jewish figures urging him, begging him to cancel the speech altogether. So I think that’s going to not play the role that he was hoping it would, that coming to Congress–I think we can anticipate that the Republicans will fill the half-empty House chamber with staffers, with whoever they can get to fill those seats, and they will orchestrate–I can promise however many standing ovations President Obama got in the State of Union address, there will be one more than that standing ovations for Netanyahu in Congress. PERIES: Phyllis, you’re going to be speaking on Tuesday at a rally. Tell us more about that. BENNIS: Well, I’ll be on Capitol Hill, but not inside with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I’ll be outside at the rally being put together by Jewish Voice for peace and a host of other organizations, protesting Netanyahu’S speech. It will be from 4 to 6 on the West lawn of the capital building. PERIES: Great. All the best to you, Phyllis, and thank you for joining us. BENNIS: Thank you. 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.