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Marwan Bishara
Marwan Bishara
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
The bully, the beauty and the beast
Marwan Bishara asks who will be shmoozing with whom at the AIPAC conference, and why Kathy Ireland was invited.
Last Modified: 01 Mar 2012 22:04
In an election year like 2012, the bullying of a US politician takes on a whole new dimension [GALLO/GETTY]

The annual rite has come again: everyone who is anyone in Washington's imperium is attending this year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference.

Among the influential speakers at the Israel lobby gathering, there are two special guest speakers who stand out.

I am not referring to Barack Obama and Shimon Peres. Their rosy rhetoric about the "unbreakable bond", the "special of the special relationships" will attract cheers, but little excitement.

The US and Israeli presidents might be the most prestigious and the best spoken, but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the most outspoken. 

And nowadays he's also most vexing - read troubling - to the Obama administration. 

The bully

The ultra-right-wing premier seems to feel more at home at AIPAC or in Washington than at the Knesset, where his supporters pale in comparison.

Last year, the US Republican leadership invited Netanyahu to speak to both houses of Congress around the time of the AIPAC conference, reportedly to pre-empt a president's initiative to break the deadlock in the "peace process" with the Palestinians.

This clear cut case of helping a foreign leader to undermine the US president is permissible only when it come to Israel, thanks to its lobby, AIPAC and company.

You might recall the comment by the New York Times widely read columnist Thomas Friedman:

"I sure hope that Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby." 

Be that as it may, the most Americanised among Israel's leaders, Netanyahu has enough chutzpah (read audacity or rudeness) to lecture the US president on the merits of security and shortcomings of peace in the Middle East.

And in an election year, the bullying of a US politician takes on a whole new dimension.

As the convention's promotional material puts it, it would take six months for talking points at AIPACs to become draft legislation in the US Congress.

In the Republican primaries season and in the run up to the November elections, pandering to the Israeli lobby sees no limits.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference is an annual ritual [GALLO/GETTY]

Republican candidates and various media outlets attack the president's Middle East policy, and accuse him of no less than "throwing Israel under the bus".

The main point of contention is centred on the policy towards Iran and the adequate response to its nuclear enrichment.

(In a major victory for Netanyahu and the radical Israeli right, one must observe, the Palestine issue has for all practical purpose been buried.)

Both sides agree all options are on the table. The Obama administration seeks pressure, Israel seeks war.

And Netanyahu will use everything at his disposal to bully the Obama administration into supporting Israel in one way or another.

Netanyahu's "good cop, bad cop" tango with Peres this week is bound to put even more heat on the administration to accommodate Israel's concerns. Ehud Barak is also at the Pentagon for more of the same.

In a bizarre media encounter, the Israeli president asked all Americans on the popular daytime TV show "The View",  to be his friend on Facebook. He went on to tell his host and friend Barbra Walters that all options are on the table regarding Iran, including not giving Washington advanced notice. In return, he got two farewell kisses from the prominent American journalist. 

No point imagining what would happen if a Russian journalist asked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a hug and kisses after telling her audience all options are on the table regarding war with Israel and the United States.
 
The beast...

The Israeli leaders reckon Iran is only buying time because diplomacy is a waste of time. 

They contend that Iran is the most dangerous power in the region and cant be trusted. The question is not to "‘war" or not to "‘war". Instead, they believe it is better to attack Iran now, than to go to war against it when it is too late.

Some in the mainstream media have gone as far as to accuse the Obama administration and Iranian leadership of conspiring to stage an Israeli attack.

In other words, all signs of Iranian response to Western pressure and overtures are seen as party of complicity.

The Washington Post editorial went as far as to accuse the Obama administration of confusing its closest ally. The editorial pondered how Leon Panetta, the US secretary of defence, would dare discourage Israel from attacking Iran, and then predict it would this Spring.

It didn't even occur to the Post management to wonder how is it that the Obama administration doesn't get advance warning from its closest ally/client (not to say give a green light) as it dares to take the region and the US to war on the basis of mere assumptions.

If Netanyahu's sabre-rattling translates into a pre-emptive attack on Iran nuclear facilities, a wider confrontation with Iran could lead to regional war with terrible consequences to US national interest. (A war scenario delineated on Empire)

Some have gone as far as to accuse the Obama administration and Iranian leadership of conspiring to stage an Israeli attack [EPA]

Although Israel maintains it won't give the US advance notice, the Obama administration will be forced into war in order to respond to potential response against its bases or its allies/clients or the blocking of the sea lanes for oil.

The US could see itself dragged into a regional conflict, especially in the Gulf region, leading to skyrocketing oil prices and perhaps global economic recession.

It is for that reason the Obama administration has been trying to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran by contending that all options remain on the table, but that sanctions, diplomatic pressure and other measures, are working.

Obama's assurances that the "US will stand between Tehran and the bomb" don't seem to convince Israeli leaders who  seem increasingly wary of Iran's acquiring the capacity to produce nuclear weapons coupled with Tehran's enhanced regional role following the US withdrawal from Iraq.

The war toll might be too great to stomach, especially in terms of cost in lives. If the legal and moral arguments are not enough to prevent war, the economic argument might be more convincing to some.

"How do you get tough on Iran without getting tough on American wallets?" the question is posed in the New York Times: An Israeli attack on Iran or an attack on an oil tanker in the Gulf could push oil prices up 20 to 25 per cent higher.

Unattractive ultimatums

Unlike the majority of the American Jewish electorate, Netanyahu is no Democrat and is no fan of Obama, to put it mildly. He is clearly and squarely on the side of the Republican right.

A decision to attack Iran could prove devastating to Obama's chances and provide much ammunition to the Republicans to attack him.

That's why the conventional wisdom here in Washington is that Obama is in a weaker position than Netanyahu in an election year.

His entire legislation agenda could be held hostage to the Israel lobby, and that doesn't only include influence over Jewish leadership in Congress.

Which brings me to the other guest that will most likely stand out at the AIPAC gathering, Kathy Ireland of KIWW.

Kathy who!!?

Before you start rolling your eyes, rest assured the former model is not just another pretty face at AIPAC. The ex-super model is a super mogul, as goes the promo.

The woman who appeared the 1989 Sports Illustrated cover - the most sold in the history of the popular magazine - has evolved into one of the most successful US business women.

Ireland does entrepreneurship and motherhood, and still finds time to write six books in between.

Like Ireland, the evangelical new-born Zionists are uncompromising supporters of Israel who many in Congress fear come elections time.

Obama might have an excellent chance against a Mitt Romney or a Rick Santorum candidacy. Many in the Democratic party are worried of another setback in Congress, stemming from a shift among the Jewish to the right and aggressive support to the Republicans among the evangelicals.

All of which signals the need for Obama to make major concessions in return for Israeli restraint vis-a-vis Iran. He has not hesitated in the past.

This could include among others, the release of Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel and was sentenced to life in prison. Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former US secretaries of state, have already joined the call for clemency.

And, more importantly, assurances that if re-elected, the Obama administration would not shy away from confronting Iran militarily if it continued to pursue enrichment and the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

Likewise, Netanyahu would give Obama peace of mind, only if the latter does the same by giving iron-clad assurances that he won't pressure Israel into compromises over Jerusalem and borders, and settlements come the next four years.

So I ask you, will Obama acquiesce to Netanyahu's blackmail? Or will he warn the Israeli premier of not going over his head?

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera's senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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