Concern over Tehran nuclear ambitions, and the danger it poses to the survival of the nation should be common to all shades of political opinion in Israel.
– Henry Kissinger, before the US Senate Committee on Armed Services, January 29, 2015
Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy
– Henry Kissinger
These citations from the doyen of American strategic diplomacy – one from a statement delivered last month, the other, a remark made decades ago – capture the essence of the brouhaha that has erupted over the invitation extended to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress on March 3.
The first illustrates the substantive disagreement over the emerging accord with Tehran and its nuclear program; the other exposes the underlying reason for the political disagreement in Israel over the invitation – and which, in turn, has sparked parallel political disagreement in the US.
Not a Netanyahu apologist
Regular readers of this column will know that I am not an uncritical Netanyahu apologist. I have on numerous occasions condemned his policy decisions when I have thought them flawed and/or unfounded. On the other hand, I have defended him vigorously against ad hominem attacks by political opponents or by the pathologically antagonistic mainstream media.
However, on the issue of his acceptance of Boehner’s invitation to present Israel’s perception of the Iranian nuclear issue to the representatives of the American people, there should be no room for equivocation.
Indeed, it is virtually inconceivable that, with regard to Iran, all Israelis, irrespective of their political hue, should not rally behind him, present a unified front to the outside world, and convey a sense of pride that an Israeli leader will be the only person besides Winston Churchill to address the US legislature three times.
Concern over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and the danger it poses to the survival of the nation should be common to all shades of political opinion in Israel.
Were logic and decency to dictate the conduct of political life in Israel, one might well have assumed that the prime minister would have won wall-to-wall endorsement in seizing the opportunity of being invited to articulate those concerns to the American public and the world from, arguably, the most high-profile stage on the globe.
Faulty arguments, poor excuses, transparent untruths
Yet despite the dictates of reason and national interest, quite the opposite has taken place.
Instead of uniting behind the nation’s elected leader’s endeavor to thwart the conclusion of what increasingly appears to be a perilously ill-advised deal with Tehran’s tyrannical theocracy, the invitation to speak has been exploited to generate sharp division in the country.
Domestic opposition to Netanyahu’s acceptance of the invitation falls into two broad categories. The first is that it will create friction with the White House, thus undermining Israel’s “greatest strategic asset,” its relationship with the US. The second is that it is a cynical maneuver to gain unfair advantage in the March election.
Both must be disregarded; both are inappropriate and/or disingenuous.
The raucous cacophony of Netanyahu’s domestic opponents to call off the visit is composed of faulty arguments, poor excuses and/or transparent untruths. Moreover, they are likely to prove distinctly counter- productive and help precipitate precisely the outcomes they ostensibly seek to avoid.
If anything, it is the prime minister’s electoral rivals who are cynically exploiting the proposed address, not only to score political points at home by denigrating his leadership, but by presenting acceptance of the invitation as siding with the Republicans against the Democrats, thus undermining bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.
Divisive in US because divisive in Israel
To a large degree, the issue of Netanyahu’s address to Congress has only become a divisive political issue in the US because it has become a politically divisive issue in Israel. In fact, much of the Democratic opposition to the address has been fed by domestic opposition to it in Israel.
After all, it is not as though Netanyahu’s rivals really endorse the emerging accord with the ayatollahs. Indeed, even some of the most Obama-philic sources in America have raised grave “concern” over it.
Thus, The Washington Post, hardly a pliant Republican mouthpiece, wrote in a February 5 editorial, titled “The emerging Iran nuclear deal raises major concerns”:
“As the Obama administration pushes to complete a nuclear accord with Iran, numerous members of Congress, former secretaries of state and officials of allied governments are expressing concerns about the contours of the emerging deal…
We share several of those concerns and believe they deserve a debate now – before negotiators present the world with a fait accompli.”
In unusually critical tones, it warns:
“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mr. Obama wishes to avoid congressional review because he suspects a bipartisan majority would oppose the deal he is prepared to make.”
A highly plausible case can be made for the claim that the ostensible Democratic ire at the PM’s acceptance of the congressional invitation is to a great extent a derivative of the vicious criticism he has been subjected to at home.
Bibi-phobia undermines bipartisan support
It was the domestic portrayal of Netanyahu’s acceptance of Boehner’s invitation as disrespectful confrontation with the White House, which virtually compelled some Democrats to rally around the president against the alleged assault on his honor. After all, could they let themselves be seen as less mindful of his prestige than Buji Herzog and Tzipi Livni??
Now imagine what would have happened if the entire Israeli body-politic had united behind Netanyahu’s last-ditch endeavor to thwart the Obama administration railroading through a tenuous and temporary agreement with the Iranian regime that in the long run is unsustainable, unverifiable and unenforceable.
In the face of such a united Israeli front, the specter of a rift in bipartisan support for Israel would be – if not totally impossible – at least highly improbable. Confronted with such Israeli unity, it certainly would have been far more difficult to conjure up and to propagate. For, then, it could not draw its justification from Israeli sources, who brandish it so vociferously today, thus providing the rationale for driving a divisive wedge in the hitherto solid bipartisan US support for the country.
Sadly, however, this was not the case – and the animosity Bibi’s political rivals feel toward him appears to have eclipsed their commitment to the national interest.
‘Chamberlain of the 21st century…’
Few could have made this case in stronger terms than a self-confessed twice-over supporter of Obama, Alan Dershowitz, who in a recent interview dismissed the negotiations as a “joke.”
Dershowitz, a long standing Democrat, excoriated the prospective accord:
“This is a very bad deal, a bad deal for the United States, a bad deal for the international community…My fear is that… Barack Obama is going to go down in history as the Neville Chamberlain of the 21st century.”
“We will point to this point in history and say, this was the turning point. This was the point where the president could’ve recognized the greatest threat to the world in the 21st century and, like Chamberlain in the 20th century, he failed to do it. That will be his legacy…:
Regarding the claim that foreign policy is the exclusive prerogative of the president, the renowned Harvard scholar of US constitutional law observed, “This is an issue of separation of powers and checks and balances. Foreign policy doesn’t belong entirely to the president.”
Significantly, this view was also reflected in the previously cited Washington Post editorial, which made the point that:
“While presidents initiate US foreign policies, it is vital that major shifts win the support of Congress and the country; otherwise, they will be unsustainable…”
‘Let Congress serve as check on president…’
When questioned as to whether it was appropriate for Netanyahu to address Congress, Dershowitz was even more emphatic: “… a prime minister of a country whose very existence is at stake has [an] absolute right to speak to Congress – and to say to Congress ‘this is not a good deal….’ So I support the prime minister… in speaking to Congress and telling them the truth”
Referring back to the issue of checks and balances, he stated: “Let Congress serve as a check on the president, if the president is going to be making a bad deal.”
But of course none of this really is of interest to Netanyahu’s domestic adversaries.
None could really have any doubt as to the prime minister’s oratory skills; none really believe he could not present Israel’s case persuasively and convey its concerns eloquently.
Their opposition to him addressing Congress is not rooted in any fear he will not perform competently. Quite the contrary, it is rooted in the fear that he will perform too competently – and hence by discharging his duty as the elected prime minister, enhance his electoral prospects. As if that is not precisely what prime ministers in democracies are supposed to do – i.e. perform competently so as to be reelected.
Real reason revealed
This, then, is the real reason for the resistance to Netanyahu’s address – not concern for the national interest, or for erosion of bipartisan support for Israel, or alarm over the degradation of Israel’s relationship with the White House.
The cynical motivation behind the political opposition to Netanyahu cogently conveying to Congress Israel’s misgivings regarding the nascent Iranian deal was dramatically exposed by the petition the leader of the far-left Meretz faction Zehava Gal-On submitted to the Central Elections Committee last month.
In it, Gal-On demanded that coverage of his congressional address by Israeli TV and radio stations be banned on grounds that it constituted prohibited electioneering. According to Israeli law, it is illegal to broadcast “campaign speeches” 60 days before an election – and Netanyahu’s speech is planned for March 3, while the election is on March 17.
Of course, the attempt to brand Netanyahu’s planned address on the perils of Iranian nuclear program and the ineffective efforts to contend with it, as ”electioneering” is patently preposterous. After all, one would hope that this was an objective virtually all parties competing in the election would endorse. Unless of course…
Happily, however, it seems that in this case, we have a triumph of common sense over politically biased absurdity – something remarkably rare in Israeli politics. In recommending that Gal-On’s petition be rejected, the attorney-general wrote sensibly: “… the request to issue the aforementioned restraining order should be turned down since this is a clearly newsworthy event with a dominant effect in terms of news and current affairs.”
Bibi bent over backwards
Ironically, Netanyahu is the last person who should be accused of not trying to accommodate White House caprices – no matter how outrageous. Perhaps more than any other Israeli politician in recent decades, he has gone against his political base to comply with the administration’s demands – whether it was the unilateral freeze on construction in Judea-Samaria, the unreciprocated release of scores of convicted terrorists, or the uncalled for apology to Turkey.
But all this pliancy has not resulted in any positive attitude from Obama’s administration. It has only created increasingly petulant expectations that future demands – however detrimental to Israeli interests – be obediently complied with.
In withstanding pressures in the current episode, the prime minister would do well to recall the 1975 “Reassessment” of US policy toward Israel, when Yitzhak Rabin refused to bow to demands from the Ford administration.
In his memoirs Rabin wrote, “‘Reassessment’…heralded one of the worst periods in American-Israeli relations.” US arms transfers to Israel were halted, negotiations with Israel over future weapons purchases suspended, and visits to the US by Israeli diplomats canceled. Yet it was counter-pressure from Congress that compelled the White House to back down – and US–Israel relations recovered and blossomed.
‘Obama repays allies with neglect & derision’
In concluding this essay I can do no better than cite a recent article by The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens, formerly editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. In an opinion piece titled “A Speech Netanyahu Must Give” he warns:
“The president collects hard favors from allies and repays them with neglect and derision… Israel cannot expect indefinite support from the US if it acts like a fretful and obedient client to a cavalier American patron. The margin of Israel’s security is measured not by anyone’s love but by the respect of friends and enemies alike. By giving this speech, Mr. Netanyahu is demanding that respect. Irritating the president is a small price to pay for doing so.”
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (www.strategicisrael.org).
First published at the Jerusalem Post