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.

 

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.