Biden, Netanyahu and the golden rule

Apr 19, 2024
USA, Iran and Israel flag together on a textured background. Diplomatic

International politics is frequently conducted in a way that bears little or no resemblance to how it is reported in corporate and state media, nor as it is understood in academic circles.

There is a public narrative for general consumption and opinion management. And then there is a more realistic account of how politics is actually conducted. Often they are parallel universes.

It is therefore important to read between the lines of official statements, uncritical stenography and patriotic commentary, to get a more accurate picture of what is going on.

The recent case of the Iran-Israel imbroglio is an excellent illustration of this two narrative structure.

The official Western account is that Iran is a rogue state which sponsors terrorism around the Middle East, and specifically seeks the destruction of Israel. It supports, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Syrian Government in this endeavour, and in other regional objectives that are hostile to Western interests.

Launching hundreds of drones and cruise missiles at Israel on 13 April was an inexplicable and unprecedented escalation of regional tensions which proved, yet again, that Iran was a dangerous threat to the rules-based world order.

Tehran must be punished for its terrorist crimes. The United States and United Kingdom stood in solidarity with Israel and its right to self-defence (as did other Western states including Australia), assisting its security with anti-missile defences which destroyed most of Iran’s ordnance before they could reach their targets. Jordan also assisted its neighbour to shoot down incoming missiles which traversed its airspace.

The attack was a total failure and a humiliation for the Islamic republic, thanks largely to the West’s superior military technology. The only question remaining was if and how Israel would “respond”.

Let’s now turn to a counter-narrative, one that comes closer to the truth of the matter.

Iran’s attack on the 13 April was in retaliation for years of Israeli assassinations, sabotage and bombings in Syria and Iran which have gone largely unreported in the West. These attacks have been made on civilians, scientists and members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran’s strategic patience finally ran out when six of its military personnel and seven others were killed in an Israeli military strike on Tehran’s diplomatic mission in Damascus on 1 April.

Israel’s violation of Syria’s sovereignty and the inviolability of Iran’s diplomatic personnel was criticised by Russia, Algeria and other members of the United Nations Security Council. However, a Moscow-drafted statement of condemnation for the attack on Iran’s diplomatic staff and premises in Syria – a clear violation of international law – was opposed by the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

The implications of this are clear. Unlike Israel, Iran has no right to self-defence. International law (Geneva Conventions) relating to the protection of diplomats does not apply to Iran. And Syria’s sovereignty can be violated with impunity by both Israel and the United States at any time.

Through backchannels, Washington told Tehran the US had nothing to do with Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate. It was all on Netanyahu, who they know is trying to distract attention away from the ardour of Israel’s Gaza genocide, and save his own political skin by dragging the US deeper into an escalating war.

With less than seven months until the presidential election, Biden does not want a wider regional conflict. He has enabled the genocide in Gaza, but hoped it would be over by the new year, giving him clean political air in the lead up to November’s vote.

Nonetheless, he continues to back Israel and has a long unbroken history of unconditional financial and military support for the holy state, if not its current prime minister whom he considers ungrateful, untrustworthy and too close to Trump and the Republicans.

Tehran accepted Washington’s assurances and said they would retaliate against Israel under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter but not target US troops in Syria or elsewhere. Nor would they attack civilian sites in Israel. They kept Israel guessing for ten days and gave everyone 72 hours-notice of the attack. The US, UK and France said they would assist Israel with anti-missile defences, but would tell Netanyahu not to “respond” tit for tat.

According to UK foreign secretary David Cameron, the attack was “disproportionate”, which will be bitter pill for Palestinians in Gaza to swallow, especially given there were no casualties from the strikes. Cameron conceded, however, that faced with a similar attack on a UK diplomatic compound which killed six British nationals, London would also have responded without saying how or on what scale.

Iran’s attack was largely performative, using inexpensive decoys and antiquated cruise missiles to drain Israeli air defences at a cost of $1.3 billion, while gathering valuable intelligence about its air defence strategies.

Biden told Netanyahu it was over and not to escalate or there would be trouble replenishing Israel’s air defences in the short term. He also told Netanyahu to cease fire in Gaza and that he would have little support for an attack on Rafah. Netanyahu may not care but Biden knows Israel is losing on all fronts, especially where it counts: public opinion in the West.

Netanyahu has worked tirelessly to get the US to attack Iran on Israel’s behalf. He was appalled by Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran and relieved when Trump junked it and moved the US embassy to Jerusalem. He will be campaigning for Trump to win a second term and that will further lower his stocks in the White House. It’s the price he needs to pay to keep his own fragile right wing coalition intact. And stay out of jail.

Biden is becoming increasingly aware of how unpopular the Israel-US genocide in Gaza has become to younger voters in America, including Jews who would otherwise help him to get voters to the booths in November. In a non-compulsory election, mobilising people to vote is a major challenge, especially this time around for Democrats who face daily protests against the slaughter of Palestinians and a solid MAGA Republican base.

If Netanyahu disobeys his instruction not to escalate, Biden will be confronted by rising oil prices, a reduction in regional influence, and an increasingly precarious global economy. On top of this he is facing imminent defeat in Ukraine. The only winners out of this will be Putin and Xi, who must wonder how the United States manages to keep getting itself into these predicaments.

Is AIPAC’s money really worth the conditions attached? For the US, Israel is becoming less of an ally and more a political embarrassment and strategic liability in the Middle East. To long term observers it seems extraordinary that this is being seriously discussed today within Washington’s beltway, as pro-Palestine and anti-Israel protests erupt every day in cities across the United States.

Ultimately Netanyahu is likely to be stymied by one factor which operates in both countries but which he is unable to control: domestic public opinion. In the West, including the United States, it has turned decisively against Israel, even if the spat with Iran becomes a temporary distraction. He may have forgotten Gabriel Kolko’s golden rule that domestic politics ultimately trumps foreign policy.

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