Never has the words of a Jewish statesman before an international stage been more highlighted, celebrated and denigrated as the address that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered to Congress last week.
Stepping into the political circus that is Washington, Netanyahu did not fail to put his message front and center. And yet the substance of the debate on how to prevent Iran to attain nuclear weapons capability was overshadowed by the politics of the prime minister allowing himself to be used by the speaker to embarrass the president.
The hoopla leading up to The Speech included endless analysis of Netanyahu’s motivations, the details of Israeli election law, diplomatic protocol, and a fall of the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance to its lowest point in history. The debate over whether diplomacy can succeed to stem a growing international security risk is an important one. We should not learn from the failed Munich accords between Chamberlain and Hitler that diplomacy always fails and that we should never avoid war.
Knowing when to persist in diplomatic efforts and when to walk away is a distilled art. We have seen the secretary of state walk away in frustration from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The fact that he has not-yet-walked away from Iran is an indication that there is what to hope for. That being said, these critical issues of diplomacy have taken back seat to matters of politics. The issue has become the prime minister himself, and even rabbis have reached the point of openly debating Israel’s leader. I hesitated writing this column, and will try to limit my thoughts to The Speech itself.
I am truly baffled by Netanyahu’s thinking here. If he is genuine, which I do believe he is, in believing that Iran and its developing nuclear capability pose an existential threat to Israel, then that would explain why he would risk the political and diplomatic fallout of proceeding with The Speech after so many American and Israeli Jewish leaders begged him to reconsider. An existential threat trumps everything else.
But the problem with this perspective is that the one thing that everyone agrees about on Netanyahu is that he is a very good politician. Even if he fails to secure his premiership in the next Knesset, he will go down in history as one of Israel’s most adept prime ministers in learning how to dominate the fractious politics of Israeli democracy. But that is precisely why The Speech is so baffling.
Netanyahu has always been a pragmatist. Where is the pragmatism in wearing down the U.S.-Israel alliance to the point where the American national security advisor can publicly express exasperation at the difference between the two governments? The surest asset for Israel’s security is the American alliance. After the indefatigable contribution and sacrifice of its own people and resources, nothing has supported Israel more in its short and violent history than the United States’ guarantee of its security and existence. From the Truman administration’s support for Israel’s bid for independence to the Nixon administration’s emergency shipment of planes and ordinance for Israel’s use during the Yom Kippur War to the Obama administration’s cooperation with Israel in establishing the Iron Dome system to protect Israel from terrorist rocket fire, the U.S. support for Israel has been ironclad. I fail to see the pragmatism in Netanyahu’s deteriorating relationship with the current U.S. administration. I fear that Israel’s security has been threatened by this cavalier exercise in political showmanship. Nothing can hurt Israel more than the devaluation of the U.S.-Israel relationship from a bipartisan to a partisan issue.
If Netanyahu’s motivations were not to protect Israel but to seek a grand podium to make his case for re-election, as some have claimed, then we have witnessed a rare historical moment where one of the most important venues in the world was used for an election speech for the premiership of one of the world’s smallest countries. The Israeli election authorities considered banning the speech in Israel because election law carefully controls the use of the media in an election campaign. In the end, the speech was broadcast. Clearly, diplomatic protocol was breached by an expanding political arena.
When the moment for The Speech arrived, as members of Congress scrambled to find tickets for friends and family for the standing-room-only event, and as the welcome and applause and attention seemed to even exceed the State of the Union address that set this moment into being, part of me felt so proud to be Jew. Proud that the prime minister of our little sliver of a state the size of New Jersey could oppose the president of the United States and be welcomed and listened to in the United States Congress. I felt proud that it was the Israeli prime minister, not only a Jew but the holder of the office that claims to represent the interests of the Jewish people worldwide, who commanded the attention of the American capital. It felt that now we had made it. That we are finally important, critical and respected.
But then my glee turned quickly to sadness. My sadness was reflected in the frustration of the House minority leader and former speaker Nancy Pelosi, who articulated her discomfort with the condescension of the prime minister’s speech. While the president pretended to brush off the prime minister’s disrespect-or perhaps he was not pretending-and while supporters disputed the condescension, I listened, and I heard it. I heard a polished politician ascend the rostrum in the House Chamber and deliver sound bites. We heard the applause he earned when he said, “I know that no matter on which side of the aisle you sit, you stand with Israel.” He gave the lawmakers a nice opportunity to demonstrate their support for Israel. And he gave a shout-out to the StandWithUs Israel support organization. But at bottom line, he inserted a slogan into the speech. A manipulation of words.
While we expect speakers to manipulate words to some extent-indeed, even rabbis have done so from time to time form our own pulpits (and op ed columns)-I felt there was a difference here. I felt that the solemnity of an address before Congress, if it was to transcend the partisan context in which it was perceived and above which the prime minister claimed to rise, required a different tone.
For sure, Netanyahu was praised for making the best case he could, and for his oratory skills. And yet.
The last straw for me was the reference to the successful HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones. This is what the prime minister said: “Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America. Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire. In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed, no rights for women, no freedom for anyone. So when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”
Netanyahu built up in his delivery to “the enemy of your enemy is your friend,” with its overt criticism of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts with the Iranians and a less overt criticism of Yitzhak Rabin’s decision to sign the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat with Rabin’s famous explanation that “you don’t make peace with your friends.” But while Netanyahu got the applause he wanted for his own culminating elocution, I had to go back to make sure I heard him correctly a few sentences before. I could not believe that he actually referenced the Game of Thrones in The Speech. By referring to the dramatic series about various factions all fighting against each other, Netanyahu was perhaps trying to demonstrate that he is “one of us,” that he watches HBO while ISIS and the Ayatollah do not even watch Al Jazeera. That Israel is the America of the Middle East. Perhaps.
But when I heard the line my first thought was that I was listening to some crazy Purim shpiel.
The entire episode seems like a Purim shpiel. The prime minister of the Jews embarrasses and insults Caesar, just as the Jews were about to be wiped off the planet. Instead, though, through the sheer force of his speech and will upon the Capitoline Hill, the senators and leaders of the great empire issue a new decree to let havoc be wreaked upon the Persians. Those who sought our destruction now face their own destruction. Indeed, Netanhayu made clear mention in The Speech, delivered the day before Purim, of the ancient Iranian Haman and his evil desires.
What he failed to understand, and what some of my op-ed columnist colleagues in this newspaper might dispute, is that the Book of Esther is not history but satire. The only historical Persian in the Bible is Cyrus, the non-Jewish savior who authorized the exiles’ return to Judea and the rebuilding of the Temple. Ahasuerus was Artaxerxes, but Mordecai and Esther and Haman are representations of Jewish fantasy, a fantasy that served us well during our many years in exile and despair. Now we have a real Mordecai, a prime minister who is powerful and influential on the real world stage. I pray that the satire of Purim and of The Speech not become the history that we must live by.