Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister of the State of Israel. As its elected leader, he rightly speaks for his nation. He may speak as a Jew, but he does not speak for the Jewish people. No one does. Indeed, what’s different for Jews relative, for example, to Roman Catholics, is that we have no pope-like figure. In the few places where there is a Chief Rabbi, even in Israel where he has some government authorized functions, he speaks only for his specific community, in this case some of Israel’s orthodox Jews. Bibi, is in the final days of an election campaign. Even if he continues as prime minister, he will remain in power only through a coalition. Polls suggest that his party is likely to gain some seats in the Knesset, but even then only the low 20s out of 120. That of course is the nature of parliamentary systems, especially one like Israel’s where thirteen parties currently hold seats. Contrast that with the UK, where coalitions are rare and where two parties dominate. So, Netanyahu, by virtue of his office speaks for Israel, but not for the Jewish people. Certainly not for me.
Listening to Netanyahu’s speech today, was eerily like listening to members of the Bush administration in the run up to the Iraq war. It was a war that he had both urged and supported. Listening to his words, I could help thinking about Dick Cheney and Condi Rice’s warnings about a mushroom cloud. The applause of the assembled, accompanied by loud hoots on the Republican side, again brought back echoes of the weapons of mass destruction frenzy built up only to be followed by a war based upon deception and salesmanship. Sadly, Netanyahu did the same. This is not to suggest that Iran is an innocent or that it does support some very bad actors and may have broad ambitions. It is rather that what we witnessed today was a sales pitch by a political candidate who will undoubtedly use video of the applause he garnered to strengthen his position back home.
Not everyone is the room was happy. Here’s is how Nancy Pelosi reacted to his remarks, “That is why, as one who values the U.S. – Israel relationship, and loves Israel, I was near tears throughout the prime minister’s speech – saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations, and saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation.” Remember how Bibi lectured Obama in the Oval Office, well he’s done it again, this time to the howls of a highly partisan audience.
Like the former House Speaker, and for much deeper and personal reasons, I too count myself as a firm supporter of Israel. Bibi may not speak for the Jews or for me, but make no mistake the survival of Israel is of key, perhaps even existential, importance to the Jewish people, regardless of their political and even religious beliefs. For that reason alone, I opposed Netanyahu’s appearance which, in my view, in addition to all other considerations was detrimental to Israel and its cause. I can’t think of a single foreign leader who has, his protestations today notwithstanding, so overtly aligned himself one of our political parties. Beyond all else, this was a major breach with diplomatic norms, one that in the long run can’t possibly be good for Israel. Injecting himself into what is already our highly polarized political scene, undermines the historic bipartisan support for Israel. A few nice words about Obama at the outset of his talk, doesn’t mask the total repudiation of the president’s diplomacy.
Israel is concerned about a nuclear Iran, and rightly so. But it must also stand up to the fact of its own armaments and being among the very few nations who have refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Doesn’t that undermine the case it makes on the current negotiations? Whether Iran, with its expressed hostility toward Israel and unquestioned aggressive role in the region, should have nuclear weapons is a legitimate question. But the better one is whether any country including Israel and all the other nuclear powers should be so armed? It’s a fact that nuclear weapons, by definition, make the world less safe. The prime minister’s protestations about Iran, without even acknowledging Israel’s own stockpile, undermines his argument and, in the eyes of its critics, comes off as being a bit hypocritical. Whether that judgment is fair is not the issue here, rather than if Bibi is asking Americans to face up to “facts”, then all facts are on the table.
Israel is a remarkable country. It’s the only true democracy in its region — one that has orderly elections and stands by the rule of law. Nobody is more vigilant in that regard that its own supreme court. At the same time, Israel continues to occupy its neighbor and in so doing has alienated many of its adversaries but also its natural allies. It is an essential Jewish state, but its policies have troubled many within the larger Jewish community and, worse, turned off many young Jews. That isn't good for Israel nor is it for Jewish survival around the world including here in the United States. I am old enough to remember the thrill of Israel’s birth in the aftermath of World War II. To see its emergence was an emotional Jewish experience, in some ways solidified for us as Americans in seeing Yitzhak Rabin address a joint session of Congress in 1976. Israeli leaders have done that eight times and in a mark of our mutual relationship more often than any other country, except the UK. I trust that will happen again, but under very different circumstances.