By putting pressure on Obama over Israel and Iran, Netanyahu is helping Romney

If Romney is elected, war in the Middle East could be on the horizon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on two Sunday morning talk shows, and most political observers in the US and abroad are wondering why. Is he trying to get the US to stop Iran's nuclear weapons programs by attacking it, or is he lending aid to his old buddy Mitt Romney? Or perhaps it's both.

Netanyahu has a history with the Republican presidential candidate. They worked for the same Boston consulting firm in the 1970s. Romney has accused President Barack Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus". By attacking Obama's record on Israel, he hopes to peel away as much of the Jewish vote as he can, especially in Florida, the ultimate swing state. Pleas for action by the Israeli PM go a long way to delivering the Sunshine State.

Defenders of Netanyahu are saying he has to push now, because after Election Day, if Obama wins, he's not going to get attention from him. The Iranian threat is higher than anyone thinks, Netanyahu says, so the international community, led by the US, must draw a "red line" around Iran so that any violation of that warning must result in military action. Netanyahu insisted that he wasn't doing any favors for Romney. His only concern, he said on NBC's Meet the Press and CNN's State of the Union, was security in the Middle East from a nuclear Iran even though Romney has repeatedly accused the president of not being sufficiently pro-Israel. 

I'm not really buying this, and neither are many others. There is almost no chance Obama would order strikes on Iran less than two months before November's election. Netanyahu knows this. Sure, he's going to get more attention now than after the election, but if it's true, as he said, that Israeli security is a bipartisan issue, then turning the heat up on the president now seems partisan. The Obama administration has said the threat isn't nearly as bad as Netanyahu says. Renewed sanctions against Iran need time to work.

Even George Will, the conservative columnist, said on ABC's Sunday talk show This Week:

"I really do not think it's fair to fault the president for 'throwing Israel under the bus,' as they say. Granted, he has a bad relationship with my good friend Netanyahu, but the relationships between the U.S. military and the Israeli military, which is 98 percent of the point of this relationship, are quite good."

That relationship didn't sour because of disagreements over Iran - the disagreement was over Palestine. Obama, following George W Bush, wants to see Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu, that most hawkish of hawks? Not so much. His Likud Party opposes statehood. It supports settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. But many in the international community, including the UN, have been describing the Israeli-Palestinian situation as "apartheid". The situation could become politically untenable unless there's a shift in focus. What better way to change the subject than war?

By putting pressure on Obama now, and sowing the seeds of suspicion and doubt - especially with those many Americans who wrongly think that Obama is a secret Muslim - Netanyahu is helping Romney, and by helping Romney, Netanyahu appears to be helping himself at home. No one agrees on how to foment the change needed for a two-state policy, but if enough hysteria over Iran is raised, perhaps a consensus for war can be reached.

And if Romney is elected, war could be on the horizon. His foreign policy advisers are neoconservatives who still, despite the blinding evidence of Iraq, believe that freedom and democracy can be spread at the tip of a gun. The conservative base at home, meanwhile, keeps prodding him to show more muscle. What better way to satisfy both factions than war?

 

Mitt Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.