Israel, Iran and the chutzpah of Netanyahu

Netanyahu campaign posters in Jerusalem
Netanyahu campaign posters in Jerusalem during 2009 Israeli elections. (By David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons)
The speech is over, in all its anti-climactic glory. Bibi stood up for Israel, and roughly ninety percent of the U.S. Congress stood up for him – over and over and over again – except when he praised President Obama and all he has done for the Jewish State, when only the Democrats in attendance stood up.

“I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention,” he insisted. But it was, and not only here, but in Israel, where elections are only two weeks away.

“The American Republican Party is intervening in our elections, and in return an Israeli party is intervening in their politics,” reads a January op-ed on Ynet, an online news site for the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth. “They are helping Netanyahu beat his rivals here, and he is helping them humiliate their rival there. It’s dangerous. It’s poisonous. It’s not so amusing anymore.”

A poke in the eye – that’s how the media is portraying Speaker of the House, John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) invitation to the Israeli Prime Minister to speak to the Congress of the United States on Iran, its nuclear program and the push for stronger sanctions against the Shi’ite Islamic Republic.

The ploy is as obvious to the White House as it is to the Israeli public. But it’s not so much to “humiliate” Obama that they want to hear from Bibi, as much as it is to remind us all what it was like in the Bush years, when we didn’t negotiate or have any kind of meaningful dialogue with the two remaining members of W’s “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea. To them, any negotiation is appeasement, any dialogue a validation of a wretched regime.

The talks are nothing more than “appeasement, conciliation, and concessions toward Iran,” and should be abandoned in exchange for a push toward “regime change” in the ancient Mideast power, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) told a Heritage Foundation conservative summit, earlier this year.

“We negotiate from a position of strength,” Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz told CNN, Monday. “We do not do this through appeasement and bickering.” And how would the sabre rattling Republican show strength? “If it was up to me,” he told Wolf Blitzer, “if I was the President of the United States — we would take out that threat.”

And it seems Netanyahu also was referring to Chamberlainization of Western nation negotiators when he said to Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, who attended his speech to Congress, “I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past; not to sacrifice the future for the present; not to ignore aggression in the hopes of gaining an illusory peace.”

[Read the transcript of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress]

Bibi was explaining the importance of the post-Holocaust standard “Never Again!” He promised the Jewish people, through the great Elie Wiesel, “I can guarantee you this. The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.” And because we have Israel, and Israel has a strong army, “For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”

Listen, Bibi, you arrogant chutzpahnik, don’t think you can turn Jewish pride in Israel into pride of your defense of Israel, and don’t lecture me on the meaning of “Never again!” Your implication that those of us who disagree with you are the same as the passive faithful who were tragically led to the slaughter is wrong and insulting. Activism wears many hats in the Diaspora and in Israel, where this stunt of yours might not defeat you (regretfully), but it should make you think about what you’re saying and to whom you are speaking.

A Jew who does not stand with you, Mr. Prime Minister, is still a Jew. It could be argued that real passivity lies in the acquiescence to your leadership. It’s easy for a Jew to do. It involves pride in Israel, which most of us, including myself, were raised on. It’s cathartic, but the goal is for Israel to be a country that survives not only out of the strength of its army, but also out of the power of its diplomacy.

The problem for you and the Republicans is you both see negotiating with the enemy as a weakness. You both seek capitulation through intimidation. For Republicans, it’s the fantasy that it was Reagan’s powerful persona that ended the Cold War.

For you, it’s faith and birthright and the incredulous notion that security comes from the belief that Israel is most safe when it gives no quarter. It is true that as a people, Jews have none to give, but to be a respected player in the world of nations, the State of Israel must show a commitment to negotiate for peace. She cannot last forever as a country with her dukes up and her back against a wall. Other prime ministers have realized that. Why not you?

The weakness of the stance Netanyahu is taking was not lost on members of Congress, even the Jewish ones. “He seemed to say that there was no way, in any way, to ever trust Iran. Which says to me you can’t have a deal with Iran,” Sen Barbara Boxer (D-California) told reporters, “and then he said, ‘Well, why don’t you work for a better deal?'”

“I don’t know what he’s saying,” she added, “I think he had circular reasoning.”

Kentucky Democrat, Rep. John Yarmouth, who is also Jewish, called the speech “straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” and echoed many who found the prime minister’s tone “condescending,” as if “he didn’t think anybody in Congress or the country understood the threat that a nuclear, weaponized Iran poses to his country, to the region and to the world.”

Where Bibi sees this as a negotiation to avert war, negotiators are engaged only in talks to avert a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu’s idea of successful negotiation would be one where “world powers… insist that Iran change its behavior” in regard to what he called its role as the “foremost sponsor of global terrorism.”

Not surprisingly, it’s very similar to his attitude toward the dormant peace process between his government and the Palestinians. Some may say that arrogance is as Israeli as a kibbutz, but Netanyahu took it to a new level last summer, when, in a news conference conducted solely in Hebrew, he told reporters what he really thought of the two-state solution and any effort by the U.S. to negotiate peace in the region. As the Times of Israel reported:

“He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.”

That goes a long way to explaining his condescension to Congress, Tuesday, and I’m sad to say, confirms his unwillingness to be a partner for peace, as long as his party runs the Israeli government. Maybe it will all backfire, and Obama and the 60 or so Democrats who did not go to the joint session to hear Bibi, by not wanting to appear to interfere with the upcoming Israeli elections, will, by their absence, have done just that.


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