After watching the Israeli prime minister’s speech before a joint meeting of the Senate and the House of Representatives (minus dozens of Democrats who chose to boycott the event), J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the dangers of this effort.
On Tuesday, 3 March, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke before a joint meeting of the US Congress for the third time, rivalling only Winston Churchill among world figures who have been given such an opportunity. Netanyahu almost certainly gave the speech of his political lifetime. It was a riveting performance, by turns combative, heartfelt, and apocalyptic – but it may end up being described by future historians as a classic pyrrhic victory – the kind of effort where the cost ultimately weighs more than what was gained from it.
The Republican congressional leadership invited Netanyahu without consultation with the Obama administration, in a startling breach of protocol for invitations to foreign leaders, for this appearance on Capitol Hill, just two weeks before Israel’s general election. As a result, the speech became a cornerstone of the prime minister’s election campaign – in addition to being a thorough statement of his foreign policy views to the entire world.
On Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu had spoken at the annual AIPAC (the America Israel Public Affairs Committee – the notably influential lobbying group in the US) convention where he had excoriated President Obama’s policy of negotiations with Iran over its presumed nuclear ambitions. In seeming contrast to that previous speech, on Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister had begun with some placatory words of praise for the Obama administration’s support for Israel over the past six years. But by the time he had finished his speech, Netanyahu’s initial words seem to have been offered just to set up the Obama administration for the verbal onslaught that was about to follow.
It is important to understand the larger set of interlocking circumstances surrounding this event. There are, effectively, four interlocking struggles. The first of these is the bitter domestic political battle now playing out in Israel where Netanyahu’s party (together with his political partners) is facing off against a revived Labour Party under Yitzak Herzog in its alliance with former Netanyahu cabinet member Tzipi Livni. The apparent idea was to put Netanyahu in front of an adoring audience in the world’s greatest deliberative body, receiving round after round of standing ovations, as if to say, “Here is a statesman who bestrides the world – you must vote for him.”
The second is the increasingly bitter tussle between Republicans and Democrats in the US over who is really in control over American foreign policy. In carrying off their unilateral invitation to Netanyahu, the Republicans, with the new belligerence that comes from having won control of both houses of Congress in 2014’s mid-term election, were betting such a speech could put the Obama administration firmly on its back foot, both in its negotiations with Iran in Switzerland over that Mideast country’s nuclear ambitions, as well as on all the other legislative disputes coming up later this year.
In line with this, the Israeli prime minister had effectively made the decision the best way to protect – and advance – the US-Israeli alliance was to bet on this Republican ascendancy in Washington for the proximate future, rather than rely upon more traditional close ties to the White House as the base and reinforcement for its broader engagement with the American public. Parenthetically, this has meant relying more and more on the right-wing Christian evangelical fundamentalists who are now crucial to Republican electoral chances at the presidential level.
And all of this plays out against the background of the on-going negotiations between Iran and the Five + One group over a more permanent agreement to replace the interim one that was put into place a year ago – and for which a deadline at the end of March is now looming. The goal of these negotiations is designed to regularise Iran’s nuclear ambitions by limiting its ability to generate fissile materials suitable for nuclear weapons as well as the possibilities for technological development of an actual nuclear device, although it would not restrict peaceful nuclear power. Rewards for adherence to the agreement would come through gradual loosening of economic and financial sanctions that have been put into place against Iran.
However, the Israeli government’s (and many American opponents’) view is that any likely version of the presumed deal now on the table would be insufficiently restrictive of Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions, thereby significantly increasing the chances Iran could quickly develop a nuclear weapon that could be married to its already available ballistic missile inventory. That, in turn, would critically destabilise the power equation in the Middle East – presumably pushing the Israelis (and/or others) to do what they must do to degrade that Iranian capability.
With all this in mind, in his speech, after those initial pleasantries and his ritualised thanks to Barack Obama for his administration’s help over the past half decade, the prime minister then rolled out a coruscating, critical portrait of the Obama administration’s position. Rhetorically, as a speech, it must be admitted that it was a masterful performance. Netanyahu, playing to those who have read their Bible, tied this moment in time to the story of Esther, the Jewish queen of ancient Persia who had prevented the obliteration of Persia’s Jewish population by zealots and tyrants. And then he noted this current moment of decision comes just prior to the Jewish holiday of Purim that celebrates Esther’s role in the deliverance of the Jews in that biblical story.
A careful listener to Netanyahu’s speech would have also noted how he tailored different elements of the speech to resonate with the varied trigger points of his many different audiences in both the US and Israel. While he began with that biblical connection noted above, the prime minister then moved onward to take up “real politick” approaches in speaking about how the strategic balance in the region would be fatally destabilised by an untrammelled Iranian nuclear weapons program married to chiliastic tendencies and support for global terrorism. Then, along the way, and drawing upon the presence of Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in the visitors gallery above the chamber where he was speaking, Netanyahu circled back to return to the question of the existential threat to the survival of the Jewish people (as opposed to Israel). At that point he issued a barely veiled reminder his nation (now presumably both Israel and worldwide Jewry more generally) would defend itself without limits – unlike during the Holocaust – and would never permit a threat to his people’s existence to materialise again.
Watch: Netanyahu’s speech
Netanyahu channelled Winston Churchill’s famous rejoinder to Hitler in his speech to the Canadian Parliament when he promised Britain would prevail in World War II, ridiculing Hitler’s claim he would wring Britain’s chicken-like neck, saying after the US had entered the war, “Some chicken, some neck!” Netanyahu verbally painted a label on Obama that could very easily have been read: “Neville Chamberlain – en route to Munich to hand over Czechoslovakia to the Nazis to forestall war, only to guarantee a bigger one”.
Netanyahu described an Iran that has consistently been threatening to annihilate Israel, but was now doing much worse throughout the region. It is now reaching out to destabilise other states to replace their governments with rulers supportive of Iran, just as it is now supporting an array of terrorist organisations like Hezbollah and Hamas to do the grunt work. Moreover, he implied Iran is now positioning itself to challenge yet other nations in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt in their place in the Middle East as well.
While he admitted his government would support a good agreement that cracked down hard on Iran’s presumed nuclear weaponisation ambitions, he argued the agreement that now seems to be on the table will actually increase the chances for that very outcome by allowing more of that critical separation of U235 from U238 for weapons via vast arrays of centrifuges, rather than controlling this process. The one thing Netanyahu did not do (and perhaps could not do beyond saying nyet to the current negotiations) was to offer a feasible alternative that would not instantly be rejected by the Iranians as a traducing of their own independence, pride, and freedom. In its rejoinders, Obama administration spokespersons quickly jumped on this very point to argue Netanyahu’s speech was effectively empty of anything more than some giddy rhetorical point scoring, rather than an effort to provide a feasible alternative set of program proposals.
Watching the speech via television, this writer had the impression of someone cheerfully throwing chunks of red meat to some very hungry animals in the way Netanyahu’s rhetoric was received by the overwhelmingly Republican crowd in the House of Representatives chamber. On the whole, Democrats in the chamber largely seemed appalled by the spectacle, as with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi call that Netanyahu’s speech was a remarkable act of condescension towards the American people.
As a result, Netanyahu has presumably achieved a short-term tactical victory, but perhaps it has been a longer-term strategic debacle. If he wins in his upcoming election, he will have cemented his domestic position, true, but by aligning himself so closely to the GOP congressional majority, he may well have set up a situation where his voice will, henceforth, only get a grudging hearing by the White House. A look at a calendar should remind that the Obama administration still has nearly two years left to run, even if it is chivvied and hemmed in by Republicans. But, equally, there is no guarantee one of the squabbling Republicans now vying to become their party’s presidential nomination will best someone who looks a lot like Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 vote.
Beyond that outcome, the force of the Netanyahu approach and the rhetorical flavour of this speech seems likely to align his position and nudge it further along a worrying trend (for supporters of Israel certainly) that means sympathy for that nation is sliding into the broader partisan divide in America, rather than being a consensus point for most on the political spectrum. Automatic sympathy for Israel, something that has been a broad constant in America ever since President Harry Truman made the decision to recognise Israel at the time of its creation in 1948 despite opposition from both the US military establishment and the State Department, is weakening among the young, the left and among minorities. Netanyahu’s hard-edged approach, married to the partisan divide and now drawing its greatest strength from white evangelicals may well have long-run negative consequences for that broader national consensus support.
And, of course, almost overlooked in all of this is the question of whether Netanyahu’s divisive tactics may weaken the combined position of the Five + One side in Switzerland in their negotiations with Iran to achieve a reasonable agreement that puts limits on those likely Iranian nuclear ambitions. And it is even possible Netanyahu’s stridency will stiffen national consensus within Iran to withstand outside pressure to sign such an agreement, making it more likely the Iranians will push on, turning what Netanyahu fears most into a new Middle East reality.
In that sense, if Netanyahu is successful in thwarting the negotiations from reaching a final agreement along the lines of what are understood to be on the table (and given Netanyahu’s argument an Iranian bomb is the greatest existential threat faced by Israel), he might even become the contemporary example of the ancient leader, King Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus had defeated the Romans in battle at the beginning of the Roman ascendancy on the Italian Peninsula. But the king, after witnessing the resulting carnage on the battlefield, according to the testimony of the Roman writer Plutarch, had exclaimed, “If we win another such battle against the Romans, we will be completely lost.” DM
Photo: Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (L) delivers a speech to a joint meeting of Congress on the floor of the US House of Representatives, in front of US House Speaker Republican John Boehner (C) and Republican Senator from Utah Orrin Hatch (R) in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 03 March 2015. Netanyahu opposes the Obama administrations ongoing negotiations with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. EPA/SHAWN THEW.