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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.