In 2003, Democrats upset about President George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq invited French President Jacques Chirac, an opponent of the war, to address a joint meeting of Congress. It was blatant political play, an attempt by the opposition to work with a foreign leader in offering a counterargument to the president’s invasion plans and limit his ability to carry though with his decision to go to war in the Middle East. Chirac was feted across Washington by liberal think tanks and pro-French lobbying groups as American politicians and Democratic activists fell over themselves to be identified with a strong anti-war leader.
This, of course, did not happen. The idea that Congress would openly side with a foreign leader against the president of the United States seems too far-fetched to believe. Remarkably, however, something not dissimilar happened in Washington Tuesday, May 24, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint meeting of Congress (a speech interrupted more than 25 times by a rapturous standing ovation). While these types of congressional addresses are rare, this particular event is even a bit more unusual: The speech’s intention — with the full assistance and backing of the Republican leadership in Congress and implicit support of Democrats — was to give Netanyahu a public forum to offer a rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s recent proposals for moving forward with the Arab-Israeli peace process.
As the New York Times reported last week, the invitation was initially requested by Netanyahu of the GOP leadership before the president’s Middle East speech plans had even been formalized: It was “widely interpreted as an attempt to get out in front of Mr. Obama, by presenting an Israeli peace proposal that, while short of what the Palestinians want, would box in the president.” In turn, Obama’s May 19 speech was scheduled purposely so that the president could get out ahead of Bibi’s remarks.
It’s one thing for Republicans to oppose the president’s position on Arab-Israeli peace. In the hours after Obama’s Middle East speech, Republican presidential contenders like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney did just that, arguing that the president had proverbially thrown Israel “under the bus.” (Never mind that Obama simply reiterated long-standing U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli peace process.) They were joined — in a bipartisan manner — by prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in offering pushback on the president’s words.
It is certainly appropriate for members of Congress to disagree with the president’s foreign-policy agenda. But it’s something else altogether to be appearing to work in concert with the leader of another country in trying to put the president on the defensive –and seeking to score a partisan political advantage in the process. By openly siding with Netanyahu against Obama and making Arab-Israeli peace a partisan issue, Republicans in Congress are at serious risk of crossing a dangerous line and in the process undermining U.S. interests in the Middle East.
This behavior follows a concerning pattern. Last November, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, after a meeting with Netanyahu, suggested that a Republican Congress would serve as a check on the Obama administration when it came to Israel policy (a position he later sought to walk back). In the fall of 2009, Cantor criticized the Obama administration for its rebuke of the Israeli government over the eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Most surprising of all, the attack was lodged from Jerusalem, where Cantor was heading a 25-person GOP delegation — an unusual violation of the unspoken rule that members of Congress should refrain from criticizing the U.S. government while on foreign soil. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took a similar position this February while traveling in Israel. He called the Obama administration’s opposition to Israeli settlements (a position long held by Democratic and Republican presidents) equivalent to “racism” and “apartheid.”
Last week, as Netanyahu lectured Obama at a frosty White House news conference and issued statements on what he “expected to hear” from the president about his commitment to Israeli security, Republican lawmakers barely batted an eye at behavior that by any other foreign leader would spark outrage from their caucus — and instead aimed their attacks at Obama.
This seems at pace with the GOP’s default position on Israel. This February, writing in the pages of National Review, Romney stated that “Israel must now contend with the fact that its principal backer in the world, the United States, is seeking to ingratiate itself with Arab opinion at its expense.” It’s a view that no doubt would have been met with astonishment in Arab capitals, where America’s image remains largely negative. One can’t help but wonder whether the tail isn’t wagging the dog — after all, is there a reason that the United States shouldn’t seek to ingratiate itself with Arab public opinion? There is an implicit assumption here that no matter what Israel says or does the United States must continue to be blindly supportive — an odd stance for an American politician to take, particularly when Israel’s actions occasionally run counter to larger U.S. interests.
Although one cannot ignore the fact that strongly held empathy for Israel is, in part, motivating this position, there is of course a healthy dose of domestic politicking at work. Democrats have long relied on Jewish support — both electorally and financially. Republicans, though less reliant on Jewish voters, have successfully made support for Israel a litmus test for Democrats to prove their national security mettle. Moreover, with strong backing for Israel among the party’s conservative base, defending Israeli behavior has become a surefire way for Republicans to politically cater to social conservatives and evangelical voters. In fact, Israel probably enjoys more clear-cut support for its policies among social conservatives than it does among American Jews! (And Netanyahu, in particular, didn’t just fall into this love fest: He has long supported and helped spearhead the alliance between the Israeli right wing and American religious conservatives.)
All this is a very far cry from George H.W. Bush’s open conflict with Israel and the American Jewish community in 1991 over loan guarantees for Israeli settlements. That the perception continues to exist that Bush’s aggressive stance cost him severely in the 1992 presidential election no doubt haunts the Republican Party — and any American politician inclined to put public pressure on Israeli leaders.
But ultimately there is more than politics at stake here. At a critical moment in the political transformation of the Middle East, America’s steadfast and unyielding support for Israel — underwritten by both parties in Congress — risks undermining America’s long-term interests in the region. Last year, Gen. David Petraeus commented in congressional testimony that “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region].” His statement provoked controversy in Washington, but ask any seasoned Middle East observer and you’d be hard-pressed to find one who disagrees with the general’s assessment. It is not Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya which is the greatest source of anti-American attitudes in the Arab world — it is the continued lack of resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the view of many in the region that the United States has its thumb on the scale in favor of Israel.
None of this is to suggest that Washington should turn its back on the Jewish state. But this is also a time when a more evenhanded position on the conflict is desperately needed — particularly as the United States will need to deal with a new government in Cairo that will likely be less supportive of Israel, a wave of unsteady democratic reforms spreading across the Mideast, and a U.N. General Assembly that appears ready to endorse Palestinian statehood this fall. These events will have serious repercussions not just for Israel but for U.S. policy in the region. Obama at least seems to realize this fact and has — albeit tepidly — challenged a recalcitrant Israel to get serious about peace. Yet Congress seems intent on restraining his leverage, effectively holding U.S. actions hostage to the whims of partisan politics — and in the process working in concert with a foreign leader to do it. At some point, it raises the legitimate question of who is looking out not for Israel’s interests, but America’s.
By: MIchael A. Cohen, Foreign Policy, May 24, 2011
A blistering piece of commentary by the esteemed (and leftist) Israeli political commentator, Gideon Levy, in Haaretz today is a must read for anyone who cares to see what progressives in Israel think of Netanyahu’s show today before the U.S. Congress.
Levy begins his piece with these loaded, and to my mind, honest salvos concerning Netanyahu’s speech to Congress today:
It was an address with no destination, filled with lies on top of lies and illusions heaped on illusions. Only rarely is a foreign head of state invited to speak before Congress. It’s unlikely that any other has attempted to sell them such a pile of propaganda and prevarication, such hypocrisy and sanctimony as Benjamin Netanyahu did.The fact that the Congress rose to its feet multiple times to applaud him says more about the ignorance of its members than the quality of their guest’s speech. An Israeli presence on the Jordan River – cheering. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel – applause. Did America’s elected representatives know that they were cheering for the death of possibility? If America loved it, we’re in big trouble.
As Levy notes, Congress today applauded some painful statements by the Israeli head of state, and this applause said much about both their ignorance on the true state of affairs in Israel as well as their willingness to remain ignorant about the true state of affairs in Israel for political gain (see: the vote of Christian conservatives and the campaign contributions of the Jewish elite).
Below is a brief look at a few of the standing ovations Netanyahu received by our representatives in Congress, and why such applause should be troubling for us as American progressives:
1. Jerusalem as Israel’s Undivided Capital – by applauding this statement by Netanyahu, our leaders essentially applauded the death of any possible peace agreement, for, as everyone knows, East Jerusalem is the proposed capital for a future Palestinian state in every iteration of negotiations that have been produced since Oslo. And yet, a standing ovation. And it bears noting: with the Arab Spring spreading throughout the West Bank and Gaza, and a declaration of Palestinian statehood on the horizon by the U.N. in September, the death of peace negotiations no longer mean what they once did: the status quo. Instead, such a death will mean major instability with unpredictable outcomes.
2. Israel is not occupying the West Bank – when Netanyahu claimed, with a straight face, that the Jewish people are not occupiers, and that the situation in “Judea and Samaria” is not an occupation, Congress roared to its feet. That the U.S. Congress could rise in boisterous applause to a known lie is chastening – Israeli leaders past, including Ariel Sharon, have admitted the obvious: that Israel is in the difficult and damaging position of occupying another people’s land.
3. Boasting on the Status of Israeli-Arabs – Netanyahu’s government has backed a series of anti-Palestinian, anti-democratic laws recently, the most notable of which forbid citizens from recognizing, in any way, The Nakba (which is the sorrowful observance Palestinians engage in as Israelis celebrate Independence Day). By applauding, our leaders, wittingly or not, gave sanction to a leader and an administration which has done much to strip non-Jewish citizens of their democratic rights.
Netanyahu’s speech today, more than anything, signaled the official death of the peace process, for none of the “terms” presented by Israel’s leader comes close to acceptable for the Palestinians.
And by standing to applaud 29 times, our leaders today gave sanction to that death. Even the White House, this evening, issued a statement saying that Netanyahu’s speech “reaffirmed the strength of U.S.-Israeli relationship.”
Here’s why what happened today matters: America has incredible leverage with regard to Israel, and has always been capable of using that leverage to talk Israel down off the pathological ledge it’s been toeing for so long due to my peoples’ existential fear of annihilation. (For good reason, I should add, but I digress.) The United States gives Israel unprecedented monetary, military and diplomatic support, all of which could easily be drawn down.
But as we saw today, the tail unfortunately wags the dog. And this wagging may end up being disastrous not only for Israel, but for American interests in the region as well, for a Netanyahu-applauded vision of Israel-Palestine is nothing more than a recipe for confrontation, for instability like we’ve never seen.
The Arab Spring has changed dynamics such that there is no going back. If Netanyahu, and America, stay on the course articulated today, this is where we may be headed:
1. A Palestinian declaration of statehood by the U.N. in September
2. Israeli & American rejection, with possible annexation of lands
3. A conflict that will not end well.
May my analysis be wrong. I hope such is the case. I fear such a case is becoming increasingly unrealistic.
By: The Troubadour, The Daily Kos, May 24, 2011
1) It’s complicated. We should no longer be surprised that a major Obama speech on an important topic is characterized mainly by its embrace of complexity. Here’s why this matters:
Traditionally the role of a Presidential speech is to say, in bald terms, which side of an issue the Administration is coming down on. Are we going to war, or not? Is the president going to sign a bill, or veto it? People outside the government underestimate how important big presidential speeches are in resolving policy arguments and deciding what an administration’s approach will be.
Obama’s big speeches have been unusual, because the side they come down on is that of complexity. In his classic Philadelphia “race in America” speech: the recognition that every part of our racial mix has its insecurities and blind spots. In his Nobel prize address: that military force is not the answer but is an answer. In his West Point speech a year and a half ago: that the U.S. can’t stay in Afghanistan forever but should stay for a while. You can apply this analysis to almost every major address.
Including these latest speeches. He argued that the United States has “interests” in the Middle East — oil, stability, anti-terrorism — and it also has ideals. So it will try harder to advance its ideals, without pretending it has no (often contradictory) interests. He presented Israel-Palestine in this same perspective. As a meta-point, he said that Israel-Palestine is only part of the larger Arab-world evolution, but is a crucial part. On the merits, he emphasized that Israel has to be secure, that Hamas must accept that reality, that Israel must be able to defend itself — but that it cannot stand pat, wait too long to strike a deal, or forever occupy the West Bank.
My point here is about Obama rather than about the Middle East. From some politicians, for instance those otherwise dissimilar Georgians Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich, a collection of “complex” ideas often comes across as just a list. Obama, most of the time, has pulled off the trick of making his balance-of-contradictions seem a policy in itself. Rather than seeming just “contradictory” or “indecisive.” This is unusual enough that it’s worth noting. (And for another time: the vulnerabilities this approach creates.)
2) Israel’s Cheney. By “a Cheney” I refer to the vice presidential version of Dick Cheney, who (in my view) mistook short-term intransigence for long-term strategic wisdom, seemed blind and tone-deaf to the “moral” and “soft power” components of influence, profited from a polarized and fearful political climate, and attempted to command rather than earn support from allies and potential adversaries.
That was bad for the U.S. when Cheney was around. It’s what Netanyahu is doing to Israel now, and Israel has less margin for strategic error than America does.
Right after Obama made his big speech, it was welcomed in most of the world and by most major U.S. Jewish organizations. The immediate critics were Mitt “throw Israel under the bus” Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, and Binyamin Netanyahu. Explain to me the universe in which this is a wise strategic choice for a nation highly dependent on stable relations with the United States — and on ultimately making an agreement in the region that allows it to survive as a Jewish democratic state.
Think of this contrast: when China’s Hu Jintao came to Washington for a state visit, each of the countries had profound disagreements with the other. (Chinese leaders hate the U.S. policy of continued arms sales to Taiwan, much more so than Netanyahu could sanely disagree with any part of Obama’s speech.) Neither China nor America is remotely as dependent on the other as Israel is on the United States. Yet Obama and Hu were careful to be as respectful as possible, especially in public, while addressing the disagreements. High-handed and openly contemptuous behavior like Netanyahu’s would have seemed hostile and idiotic from either side. As it is from him.
The real service Netanyahu may have done is allowing easier U.S. discussion of the difference between Israel’s long-term interests and his own.
3) God bless this speech. President Obama showed that it is possible to end a speech with … a real ending! The usual one might have sounded odd in a speech largely addressed to the Islamic world. So the release text of his speech concluded in this admirable way:
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”
Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa — words which tell us that repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights. It will not be easy. There is no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.
By: James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic, May 22, 2011
A long simmering rift between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader, has finally boiled over. For the last two weeks, the two leaders have been locked in a public battle over Ahmadinejad’s decision to fire his minister of intelligence, a close ally of Khamenei. And, in spite of indications in the last few days that a compromise has been reached—not to mention Khamenei’s repeated pleas that factional feuds be kept out of the media lest the dispute embolden foes and dishearten friends—acrimonious attacks by both sides have continued apace. Regardless of how the crisis is resolved, one thing is clear: The confrontation marks a splintering of the once healthy alliance between the two leaders—and a serious blow to unity within the Iranian regime.
Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have had disagreements over key appointments in the past, but typically they have been waged outside the public eye. The president previously refused, for instance, to comply with Khamenei’s publicly stated wish to dismiss Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, all-powerful behind-the-scenes fixer, and his son’s father-in-law to boot. Everything Mashaei did or said—from his talk of “Iranian nationalism,” a concept condemned by many Iranian clerics as a Western colonial trick, to his cavorting with a beautiful actress—became a subject of controversy and backbiting in the media. But Ahmadinejad, in spite of pressure exerted by the Supreme Leader, has never flagged in his support for his beleaguered adviser and relative.
Two weeks ago, however, these often whispered tensions broke into the open when Ahmadinejad dismissed his intelligence minister and Khamenei opposed the move in a surprisingly public fashion. Instead of trying to solve the conflict behind closed doors, Khamenei chose to publish a letter—pointedly addressed not to the president, but to the dismissed minister—that reappointed the man to his post. Ahmadinejad, for his part, maintained a studied silence, but he refused to attend cabinet meetings and his website continued to carry the news of his intelligence minister’s dismissal. Finally, on Monday, he agreed to attend a cabinet meeting, but the controversial minister of intelligence was absent and his fate is still not clear.
In addition, Ahmadienjad’s announcement that he had reconciled with Khamenei has itself become the focus of a new round of controversy. After comparing his relationship with the Supreme Leader to that of a son and his father, Ahmadinejad has been lambasted by conservative clergy members loyal to Khamanei. The relationship isn’t filial, Khamenei’s representative to the Revolutionary Guards charged, but rather that of an “Imam and Mamoum”—a divinely guided leader and a submissive believer who is led in all matters and at all times. Another cleric declared that refusing to heed Khamenei’s voice is heresy against god himself.
While the facts of the on-going confrontation are more or less clear, the important question is why Ahmadinejad, who began his first term as president by kissing Khamenei’s hand on the day of his inauguration, is now biting the very same hand that was certainly critical in giving him his alleged victory in the contested June 2009 election. According to one theory, Ahmadinejad knows the clergy are increasingly reviled in Iran and is keen on either challenging them or at least distancing himself from them. Others attribute his defiance to the arrogance of power, his tendency to believe in his own lies, and his belief that he, in fact, did win the last election and thus need not play vassal to a weakened Khamenei. Needless to say, the conservative clergy attribute the whole crisis to an Israeli and American conspiracy and claim that “infiltrators” from the ranks of the enemy have bedeviled the gullible president.
Why Khamenei has decided to pick a public fight at this time is no less important to ponder. It appears that, once again, he has chosen a path whose goal is nothing more than establishing and expanding his own authoritarian power—the outcome of which will likely leave the regime fractured and weakened, his power utterly dependent on the whim of the Revolutionary Guards. His rash decision has left him with no good outcome: He must either cave and allow Ahmadinejad to fire the minister—and suffer yet another major blow to his authority—or he can succeed in humiliating Ahmadinejad, creating considerable resentment amongst his base of mainly poor, rural supporters.
A third possibility, however, is that Khamenei and his allies might have chosen this public row as an excuse to offer up Ahmadinejad as a sacrifice and blame him for the country’s impending financial woes. By all accounts, the country’s economic horizon looks bleak. (The only good news has been the price of oil.) Many seasoned economists, including several in key positions in the government, admit that the Iranian economy is heading towards a dangerous moment of hyper-inflation and depression-like unemployment rates. With the economy in rapid decline, the search for a scapegoat will likely intensify. The only thing that’s uncertain at this point is who will take the fall.
By: Abbas Milanti, Contributing Editor, The New Republic, May 6, 2011