In a brazen diplomatic affront to President Obama, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced the President’s negotiations with Iran before a packed audience of the US Congress on March 3. Obama dismissed the speech as political “theater” while over fifty Democratic congress members skipped the speech. We, by contrast, applaud Mr. Netanyahu’s affront and fault the skipping of the speech as empty theater.
This is not the plea from the Israel-can-do-no-wrong camp. We condemn Israel’s longstanding abuses of Palestinians, occupation and accompanying settlements, which the United Nations has condemned as illegal and the primary obstacle to a peaceful resolution. Indeed, we joined Jewish Voice for Peace in support of full equality and human rights without discrimination for all Palestinians and Jews. Moreover, we share the widely held view, echoed even by former Israeli Mossad head Meir Dagan, that Netanyahu’s proposed stance toward Iran would be a disaster for global stability.
We welcome Mr. Netanyahu’ address to cheering members of Congress because the spectacle laid bare the ugly reality of America’s bipartisan “special relationship” with Israel. While clashes in personality pop up periodically between US and Israeli leaders (with Netanyahu being particularly quarrelsome), the US maintains vast levels of military, economic, and diplomatic support, no matter which party is in power. Here, President Obama, Speaker Boehner, minority leader Pelosi and virtually all of the Democrats who skipped the speech are on the same page.
The consensus cannot be simply explained by the power of a narrow “pro-Israel” lobby. Rather, both Israel and the US are afflicted by a self-destructive political culture whereby global challenges are met by militarism, aggressive interventionism, and disregard of fundamental norms of international law, like self-determination, human rights, and nonaggression. In the case of Israel, this stance has not only caused suffering to generations of Palestinians but produced a perpetually insecure state of Israel, dependent on overwhelming military superiority and the support of a distant great power. At home, the pattern of unilateral invasions, support for brutal authoritarian regimes, and execution of unlawful counterinsurgency policies – including extrajudicial killings and CIA-led torture programs – have inspired new terrorist movements, poisoned the US image abroad, and made us more insecure.
Given these longstanding realities, the personality squabbles between Netanyahu and Obama and the breach of diplomatic protocol are a sideshow to the robust congruence of destructive political cultures. By skipping the speech, the fifty-plus Democrats offered up a meaningless gesture that distracted attention from the far more fundamental and pathological dynamics afflicting US-Israeli relations.
By contrast, Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to a boisterous crowd of Democratic and Republican representatives delivered a much-needed wakeup call. Through this distasteful spectacle, the American people gained a vivid glimpse of the dysfunction of our system. Even in this unusual case where an American President is seriously pursuing a peaceful resolution, he was confronted by powerful resistance calling him back to the crippling underlying political culture of bombs and missiles, sanctions and threats. The American public witnessed their elected representatives cheering a foreign leader who asked us to follow the customary pathway of rejecting diplomacy, thereby making war and the further proliferation of WMD’s more likely. We fervently hope that this blatant display will help free Americans from their dangerous stupor and prod them to demand a new approach to global affairs before it is too late. If not, we are in for new rounds of destructive conflict that foment terrorism and despair abroad and hollow out freedom at home.
So, thank you Mr. Netanyahu for your act of political theater which brilliantly illuminated the politics of self-destructive paranoia. While we oppose all that you stand for, you may have inspired a change in consciousness that will bring about a far more sane and just US policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.