Whatever Benjamin Netanyahu says when he addresses Congress will likely be overshadowed by the controversy his speech has already generated.
John Boehner’s invitation to the Israeli leader has become a partisan issue; several Democrats have announced they will avoid the speech, and countless more will simply not show up. Neither Obama, nor John Kerry, nor Vice President Biden will meet with the Israeli prime minister. “The lobby is a night flower. It thrives in the dark and dies in the sun,” AIPAC’s former research director Steve Rosen wrote in a memo to a new employee in 1982. Rosen recognized that the more Israel’s influence on Capitol Hill and the Executive Branch was acknowledged, the more vulnerable it would be to challenge. Netanyahu and his ambassador, by arranging the invitation, have inadvertently put Israel’s influence on the Congress under a bright light.
It was supposed to work differently. For instance: In 1958, John F. Kennedy met with Philip Klutznick, a major figure of the Presidents Conference of Major Jewish Organizations. Kennedy, who had traveled in Palestine as a young man, expressed concern about Palestinian refugees. Klutznick set him straight: if he planned to talk like that, he shouldn’t count on any financial support from Klutznick or his friends during the presidential bid Kennedy was contemplating. JFK got the message and dropped the refugee topic for the duration of the campaign. This was early Israel lobby, the night flower at its classic best: a quiet behind the scenes reminder, a potentially nettlesome subject disappears from political discussion, the public none the wiser.
Instead there is this: more than a month of media debate over Netanyahu’s speech; obvious contempt flowing between the Israeli government and President Obama. Dueling full-page newspaper ads. State Department spokespeople openly mock the Israeli leader’s comments about the Iran negotiations. Netanyahu plunges ahead; for him the speech has become central to his own election campaign, and to postpone it might show weakness.
The Israel lobby is far from slain. AIPAC is closely involved in lobbying for Senate legislation designed to blow up the Iran negotiations, and is within shouting distance of securing a veto-proof majority. And yet a generation ago, an Israel lobbyist famously boasted he could get 70 senators to sign a cocktail napkin in a day’s time. Here with a Republican majority determined to undermine and embarrass President Obama, plus a number of Democrats who are either reflexively pro-Israel or dependent on Israel lobby funds, the Kirk-Menendez legislation has 60-odd supporters, after months of work.
What will Netanyahu say? He surely will claim Iran is pledged to Israel’s destruction, that it is a messianic, apocalyptic regime whose nuclear aspirations pose an existential threat to Israel. Israeli leaders say this again and again. Existential, a big word so significant in Western intellectual life in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so laden with profound and mysterious connotation, but hard to truly grasp. (“Shoot the Piano Player” is an existential movie, a girlfriend told me at 17, as if that was supposed to clear it up.)
But here the meaning is simple, that a nuclear Iran threatens Israel’s existence, or as it is often put, its “very existence.” James Fallows is one who has addressed this claim lucidly:
We’ve reached the stage where a particular word obscures more than it clarifies about Iran and its nuclear prospects. That word is “existential,” as in this now-standard formulation from Prime Minister Netanyahu: “A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on Israel and also on the rest of the world.”
I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word “existential,” I know 90 percent of what will come next. In this context an existential threat, literally a challenge to continued existence, means implicitly likening Iran to Nazi Germany—or explicitly equating it, as Netanyahu has done for many years.
By definition an existential threat justifies any action that might forestall it, from preemptive military strikes to efforts at torpedoing an “unacceptable” diplomatic deal. It makes all compromises suspect. And it means that opinions from other countries lack moral standing, because after all their existence is not on the line.
Fallows goes on to make several strong points. In the nuclear age, we are all under an existential threat. Americans have been so ever since they lost their monopoly on nuclear weapons. South Korea is probably the most existentially threatened nation on the planet right now—as its enemy, North Korea, regularly brandishes its arsenal and makes terrifying threats. But for some reason the South Korean president isn’t invited to address Congress.
There is no valid comparison between the situation Israel might face with a nuclear-capable Iran and Nazi Germany. In 1938, Germany had the most powerful army in the world. Iran’s is nowhere near the top 10. In a nuclear war with Israel, Iran would get incinerated, because Israel is a nuclear power with a substantial arsenal. The 1938 analogy doesn’t withstand the most basic scrutiny.
Does Netanyahu realize his open fight with the administration risks damage to Israel’s special relationship with the United States? The Israeli press is full of such musings. Why does an Israeli leader savvy enough to be elected several times not recognize the danger? I would surmise that the answer lies in his supreme self-confidence, which has never failed Netanyahu in the past. He knows the United States well, having attended high school and graduate school here, and speaks English fluently. In countless interviews on American television, he seems never to have faced a well-informed opponent. He aligned himself early on with American neoconservatives, a tough and intelligent group whose influence seemed to know no direction but up from 1975 onwards.
His past appearances in Congress have been hugely successful. In 2002, 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.” Bibi 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 work out swimmingly. “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you it will have enormous positive reverberations around the region,” he concluded.
No one sought to bring these predictions up when he was invited again in 2011, receiving 29 standing ovations for explaining that Obama’s efforts to forge a two-state solution were a nonstarter. Years earlier, before these speeches, in a private meeting with right-wing West Bank settlers, Netanyahu had boasted that “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.” How could his Capitol Hill experiences fail to confirm this view?
But things have actually changed in the United States. Not a lot, but somewhat. The neoonservatives remain entrenched in the think tanks and the GOP, and are hardly without influence. But they are broadly distrusted in ways they weren’t before the Iraq war. When you hear “Paul Wolfowitz” you don’t think smart guy, hawkish; you think architect of the Iraq disaster.
The issue, too, is different. It is not fairness or a sliver of justice to the Palestinians, of whom it could be said possess few resources beyond their patience and capacity for endurance. It is Iran. And make no mistake, Netanyahu is asking America to prepare for war against Iran. Had the war with Iraq gone swimmingly, his case would meet less resistance. But it didn’t. The cost of Iraq was a wrecked country, hundreds of thousands of destroyed lives, trillions of dollars wasted, and the rise of ISIS. Iran is four times bigger.
Before the Iraq war, the eminent diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder in this magazine mused that one of the unspoken but important reasons for the war was that it would benefit Israel. This circumstance of a great power fighting as a proxy on behalf of a small client state represented something that Schroeder found “unique in history.” It is true that if it happened once it could happen again. But Netanyahu may not recognized there is organized pushback that did not exist 12 or 13 years ago. There is a professionalized pro-peace constituency in D.C., far larger and more organized than the justice for Palestine or anti-Iraq war elements were. In America at large there is inchoate and perhaps exaggerated fear of Sunni Muslim extremism, of ISIS risen from the ashes of destroyed Iraq. But with that fear it is dawning on Americans that Iran is perhaps the only state in the Mideast both willing and able to fight ISIS. The American military certainly understands this.
Finally, Netanyahu probably fails to realize that Israel itself is simply not as popular as it once was. The decades of occupation have taken a toll. Grassroots Democrats (the delegates at the 2012 convention) oppose the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. Most Americans want the United States to be neutral between Israelis and Palestinians. Most Americans disapprove of the invitation for Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting the White House. The world has shifted in the last few years, not greatly but not trivially, in ways Netanyahu does not appreciate.
I hope Netanyahu goes ahead with his speech. I hope he’s re-elected. He has become a polarizing figure, a walking billboard for an Israel that foments war and rejects compromises for peace, a potent symbol for all those who think the United States is too close to Israel for America’s own good. God willing, Netanyahu won’t succeed in bringing about a war between the United States and Iran. He’s not popular enough. But he is making more and more Americans question the special relationship. Go Bibi Go.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.