The spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech

Prime Minister Netanyahu's address to a joint session of Congress is unprecedented and unwanted


WASHINGTON, March 5, 2015 – Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid. American taxpayers provide Israel with more than $3 billion dollars a year, in addition to our most modern weapons and defense systems, such as the Iron Dome. Israel is a prosperous country, with a GDP higher than many members of the EU. The rationale for this massive aid is an element in our domestic politics.

Instead of being grateful for American aid and support, the current government headed by Mr. Netanyahu has rejected American calls for an end to West Bank settlements by expanding such settlements in the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem.

Read Also:  The reason Netanyahu got that thunderous applause

The U.S. is committed to a two-state solution. Mr. Netanyahu rejected the Oslo Peace accords and ever since has made if clear by his actions that he has no intention of acquiescing in the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank. In that territory, four million Palestinians have no legal rights while Jewish settlers in same area have the right to vote in Israeli elections. This may be “democracy” to Mr. Netanyahu, but not to anyone else.

When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was moving toward peace with the Palestinians, was murdered by a Jewish extremist who opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, his widow, Leah Rabin, publicly blamed Mr. Netanyahu for his opposition to a peace agreement and for creating the atmosphere of hate in which such an assassination became possible. Mrs. Rabin has never changed her view of Mr. Netanyahu.

Now, as the U.S. is engaged in sensitive negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program, Mr, Netanyahu has interfered in domestic American politics, criticized the president and Secretary of State as naive and about to enter into a dangerous agreement. No other foreign leader has ever acted in this way. It is clearly a case of biting the hand that feeds you.

House Speaker John Boehner, evidently prepared to do anything he can to show contempt for an elected U.S. president of the other party, may think he has scored a partisan point. He should think again.

It is not only Democrats and liberals, protective of the president, who are concerned about Mr. Netanyahu’s behavior and the dangerous precedent it sets. Writing in The American Conservative, Daniel Larison provided this assessment:

“There was nothing interesting in the context of Netanyahu’s speech…One remarkable thing about the event was how shamelessly the prime minister repeated one dishonest or tendentious claim after another. He held up an utterly unrealistic ‘much better deal’ that Iran would never agree to as the only alternative and he absurdly claimed that the deal being currently being negotiated would ‘pave’ the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon…Netanyahu’s record of false predictions and warnings about Iran’s nuclear program makes him an especially unreliable source of information.”

Mr. Larison laments that, “The audience enthusiastically cheered on the sabotage of a major U.S. diplomatic initiative, the undermining of an important U.S. policy goal, and the blatant meddling of a foreign leader in our domestic politics. It is one of the more disgraceful things I’ve seen an assembly of American political leaders do, and that is really saying something.”

Netanyahu’s past appearances in Congress are less than encouraging. In 2002, he stated before a congressional hearing that Saddam Hussein was “pursuing with abandon, with every ounce of effort, weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons…Saddam is hell bent on achieving atomic bombs as fast as he can.”

He went on to charge that Saddam has sprinkled Iraq with “nuclear centrifuges the size of washing machines” and that nothing short of an American invasion or regime change would stop Saddam from passing out nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. An invasion, he concluded, would be a great success.

“If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime,  I guarantee you it will have enormous positive reverberations around the region,” he concluded.  As everyone now knows, it didn’t quite work out that way.”

The Netanyahu predictions about Iran have also been less than prophetic, but always alarmist. In 1995, he wrote that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in “three to five years,” and in 1996, speaking before a joint session of Congress, he warned that the deadline for Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon was “getting extremely close.”

In 2012, Netanyahu spoke at the U.N. warning that Iran was months from producing a nuclear weapon. Newly released information reveals that Israeli intelligence reports contradicted the information in Netanyahu’s speech.

Read Also: Benjamin Netanyahu lights up Congress, excoriates bad Iran deal

Mossad’s formal assessment of Iran’s nuclear capacity and intentions clearly contradict the scenario outlined by Netanyahu at the U.N. “According to the Mossad report, Iran was not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons,” declared The Guardian. “The report highlights the gulf between the public claims and rhetoric of top Israeli politicians and the assessments of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.”

Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan points out that, “Iran does not have a nuclear bomb and is signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty…In contrast, Israel refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has several hundred nuclear warheads, which it constructed stealthily, including through acts of espionage and smuggling in the U.S. and against the wishes of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson…Iran has not launched an aggressive war since 1775 when Karim Khan Zand sent an army against Omar Pashain in neighboring Iraq…Modern Iran has not occupied the territory of its neighbors.”

One would have to assume that Iran was suicidal to believe that even if it obtained a nuclear capacity if would attack Israel, which has an abundant nuclear arsenal to retaliate. There is no indication that Iran is suicidal.

In Israel itself, many commentators argue that Netanyahu’s focus on Iran is simply a means to avoid dealing with the question of the continued occupation of the West Bank. Editorially, the newspaper Haaretz  (March 3, 2015) declared:

“Netanyahu and other Israeli candidates are ignoring the real existential threat to Israel…the unending occupation of the territories.  Israel’s insistence on ruling over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank who lack civil rights, expanding the settlements and keeping residents of the Gaza Strip under siege is the danger threatening its future.”

The image of the U.S. Congress wildly cheering a foreign leader that receives billions of dollars of U.S. aid, as he belittled the president, is disturbing. This is true regardless of one’s views about Iran and the negotiating process under way. If Israel has a point to make about these negotiations, diplomacy, not interference in the American political process is the appropriate course.

But Benjamin Netanyahu’s overreach has no limits. In the wake of attacks on Jewish targets in Paris and Copenhagen, he called upon French and Danish Jews to leave their countries and emigrate to Israel, their “real home.”

The chief rabbis of Denmark and France who declared that they were “Danish” and “French immediately rebuffed him” and that Israel was not their “home.” Mr. Netanyahu refuses to recognize that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality. Americans of the Jewish faith, for example, are Americans by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Catholic, Protestant or Muslim. They are not, as Netanyahu seems to believe, “Israelis in exile.”

On March 1, just before leaving for Washington, Netanyahu tweeted that, “I feel that I am an emissary…of the entire Jewish people.”

No other national leader claims to speak in behalf of millions of men and women who are citizens of other countries.

Sen, Diane Feinstein (D-CA) declared:  “Netanyahu doesn’t speak for me…I think it is a rather arrogant statement.”

A fullpage ad in The New York Times (March 2, 2015) sponsored by Tikkun, which is headed by Rabbi Michael Lerner, declared:

“No, Mr. Netanyahu, you do not speak for American Jews…Most polls indicate that a majority of American Jews (and most non-Jews) support President Obama’s attempt to negotiate a settlement that would prohibit Iranian development of nuclear weapons rather than the Netanyahu approach of undermining those negotiations.  Most polls indicate that a majority of American Jews oppose the expansion of West Bank settlements that Netanyahu favors and support the creation of an independent Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.”

Benjamin Netanyahu has provocatively interfered in our domestic politics, and John Boehner has not only intervened in domestic Israeli politics, but appears prepared to subcontract U.S. foreign policy to a foreign leader.

Perhaps this will focus additional attention upon AIPAC, the so-called pro-Israel lobby, which also hosted Netanyahu. As Steve Rosen wrote in a memo to new AIPAC employees in 1982, “The lobby is a night flower. It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

In the wake of Mr. Netanyahu’s performance, AIPAC’s role should come under more careful scrutiny, as should the real nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship. If mutual trust is an important ingredient in an alliance, it will take much effort, and a new Israeli leader, to achieve it.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.