Netanyahu brings the Iran match, the US Congress supplies the fuel

When Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington this week, the talk will be about Iran, not about the Palestinians.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes he is coming to a very different Washington this week. From his perspective, past visits have all been marred by that pesky Palestinian issue.

On one occasion not long ago he was pressed to recognise the need for a "two-state" solution. Then he was chided about his settlement expansion programme. And just one year ago, he was reminded that the 1967 borders were the basis for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

As is his style, the Prime Minister dealt with each of these issues as "annoyances". He manoeuvred, he dissembled, he harangued, and when all else failed, the Israeli leader turned to his allies in the US Congress who rather forcefully defended his stand against their own president. But Mr Netanyahu now hopes that all of this unpleasantness is a thing of the past.

With fires raging in Syria and with the drums of war beating incessantly over Iran, the prime minister comes to town believing that the Palestinian question has been all but forgotten. He comes bearing not an olive branch but a match with which he hopes to ignite a firestorm.

With Palestine and peace off the table, it is Iran that will be the focus of this visit. Mr Netanyahu's host, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), is supporting legislation that paves the way for a US confrontation with Iran. Sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators - led by Joseph Lieberman, Lindsay Graham, and Robert Casey - the bill would push the administration to reject any Iranian nuclear enrichment programme while eliminating as an option mere "containment" of Iran's programme.

Says Senator Graham of his resolution: "All options must be on the table when it comes to Iran - except for one, and that is containment."

The logic behind this bill is as remarkable as the precedent it creates. I cannot recall an instance where members of Congress authorised or came as close as this piece of legislation to limiting the options of the administration to pursue any option other than war, without the president asking for it or, as is most often the case, pushing for it.

Aipac and Israel's Likud party, which have wanted this confrontation for more than a decade, are closer than ever to realising their ambition. This, Mr Netanyahu must be thinking, is what friends are for.

And so it is that the tables appear to have been turned in the Washington that will greet the Israeli leader. He will not be pressured to do what he has long been loathe to do - address Palestinian rights. Now he will be in the driver's seat, pressuring President Barack Obama to once and for all forsake diplomacy as a tactic or containment as a strategic option, and join Israel in the march to war with Iran.

Expect an outbreak of war fever at Aipac's annual policy conference that begins today. It will be "all Iran, all the time". They will make the case, push the case, and then dispatch their lobbyists to Capitol Hill to broaden the already substantial sponsorship enjoyed for their supported bill.

Attention now turns to President Obama, who will speak at the beginning of the policy conference. With the Republican presidential aspirants (Ron Paul being the exception) leading the war chorus and criticising Mr Obama's "softness", and with even many of his Democratic allies in the Congress joining in, the president is feeling the heat.

Arab critics already feel that Mr Obama gave away the store last September at the United Nations. But the Israelis are continuing to press the president for more, not less.

Mr Netanyahu is particularly upset with warnings by senior administration officials regarding the potentially devastating consequences of a military strike against Iran or concerns raised by US military officials about the effectiveness of an Israeli attack.

Israel's supporters have been fuming over the White House's recent efforts to pour cold water on their threats of war. They want a clear message of support from the president for their push to end diplomacy, isolate and then punish Iran. They want Mr Obama to embrace the "red lines" they have drawn regarding Iran's nuclear programme and to join them in ratcheting up the rhetoric against Iran.

And they do not want any reminders from Mr Obama of the matter they are working hard to forget. They do not want criticism of Israel's ever-expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or of demolitions of Palestinian homes and new repression in the occupied lands - all of which have intensified in recent weeks (almost as a dare to the US President).

Israel's American supporters, and the prime minister they have embraced, want the smoke-screen of Iran and election year politicking to block out any mention of the issue they want to just go away. They are hoping that this visit will be unlike any of the others that have come before.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute