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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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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