The arguments about Bibi’s upcoming speech before congress are so emotional that it may help to spell out the issues from a more balanced perspective.
1) The issue is not Bibi. Bibi was invited to address congress on Iran. If that invitation was improper, the person who issued it should withdraw it together with an apology to Bibi. It is not Bibi’s place to inform his hosts of their proper etiquette towards the President. If Bibi has a special relationship with the President that might be different. In fact, he is the leader of an allied nation, nothing more.
2) The acceptance of an invitation to address congress should not be construed as interference in American politics or its democratic institutions. The right of congress to invite foreign speakers has a long history in the American political system and should be respected. Indeed, if anyone would deliberately prevent a speaker from accepting a congressional summons, that would be interfering with the democratic process. This has not deterred Bibi’s critics at home and abroad, who are themselves interfering in the workings of congress. In that sense it would be defiant for Bibi to decline the congressional invitation. Bibi was invited by loyal American leaders of congress in order to better serve American interests as they see it, and as a friend of the United States he ought certainly to acceed to their request.
3) To illustrate the deviation from normative practice, imagine if congress invited someone else, say the PA President, Muhammed Abbas or the President of the Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, to speak on a controversial subject related to the future of his own nation without obtaining the agreement of the President. Would anyone demand that those individuals refuse or would anyone claim that they are interfering with US politics? Or wouldn’t they instead criticize the person who invited them, if there were anything wrong with the invitation? The proper thing would be to treat the foreign leader with respect while reprimanding the person who wrongly extended the invitation. One can come up with all kinds of reasons to justify the exceptionalism for Bibi, but exceptionalism it is, and it plays into anti-semitism. In this sense Obama is part of a bi-partisan tradition of rudeness towards uncooperative leaders of Israel including Jimmy Carter and George Bush the first.
4) There are no good relations between Bibi and the man whose staff calls him a chickenshit. So there is little positive incentive for Bibi to refuse the opportunity that his friends in Washington have given him to speak out on the issue of Iran. Refusing the invitation of his friends in order to curry favor with his enemies will gain him nothing and will have a negative impact on his future as Israeli Prime Minister, and therefore on his future ability to influence events. He also has little to lose by offending Obama, since Obama seems already to be pushing the limits of the US-Israeli strategic alliance.
5) In the last five years, Bibi has devoted himself to warning about Iran’s efforts to gain the bomb. This has been his paramount policy concern. He has said that he will do whatever is necessary to stop Iran, regardless of US concerns. His critics tend to discount this as a motive for his address to congress, pointing to the proximity of the talk to the Israeli elections. They don’t always mention that it is also proximate to the date on which the US and Iran are planning to reach an agreement, and that postponing the talk would mean making it after a hypothetical agreement is already reached. Given this context it is arguable that Bibi would be right to step on some toes to get his message across.
6) Despite his strong opinions about this issue, Bibi has complied with Obama’s calls for restraint and has not launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Possibly, Obama was being disingenuous in calling for restraint. Despite Obama’s public urging of restraint, the chickenshit remark could be interpretted as a rebuke for Bibi’s failure to attack Iran independently. It is certainly possible that Obama wished that Bibi would have solved the Iran problem for him, while enabling him to distance himself from the effort. But if Obama was sincere in urging restraint, as most people think, then Bibi has been more than cooperative and should expect something other than a sell-out to Iran.
7) Knowing all of these things, critics have had a hard time formulating exactly what Bibi is doing wrong and have fallen back on threats: Bibi you had better back down, or Bibi you’ll make the lion even angrier. Undeniably Obama is angry, but if there was nothing inherently wrong about Bibi’s accepting the invitation to begin with, then the fact that Obama is angry isn’t Bibi’s fault; it’s Obama’s. And even if one thinks Bibi should back down for prudential reasons rather than risk exacerbating Obama’s anger, there’s still no justification for blaming Bibi for Obama’s inappropriate response.
8) Some of these critics are people who, in other circumstances, would praise those with the courage to speak truth to power. But in this case, since they do not believe that Bibi is right about Iran, or even, as with Thomas Friedman, when they do, they apply the principle of “do what the big boss says.” However, this argument still runs afoul of my fourth point, that Israel has little to gain by shutting up and much potentially to lose.
9) This is not the first time that Jews have been told to keep their voices down on matters of vital Jewish interest. During the Holocaust, American Jews largely failed to speak up, out of a concern that this would be perceived as offensive and pushy in the eyes of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Winston Churchill famously told Chaim Weitzman to speak to him about Palestine “after the war.” The decorous behavior of many Jewish leaders at this time did not lead to any benefits for the Holocaust victims, but it did preserve the position and self-image of American Jews. Now that Jews are once again told, by fellow Jews as well as others, that they are better off keeping quite at this juncture, we should perhaps be more sympathetic with the quietism of American Jews during the war, when they would have been portrayed as harming the war effort. Being quiet may really have been the best they could do. They may not have gotten an ear by speaking up louder, and may have suffered for opening their mouths. Bibi may not do any better this time. But, unlike the American Jews, he was invitated to address congress by loyal American leaders working for the good of America. Moreover, even if quietude was arguably the best strategy during the Holocaust, which I doubt very much, that is only because of the indifference and hostility of the American leaders. If the blame for Jewish quietude does not fall on the Jews, if they were wise to keep quiet, then it falls on those who made them feel that way, and it still does today. On the other hand, maybe the Jews should have spoken out more loudly. Those who argue that decorum is more important than speaking out about potential genocide have either not learned one of the lessons of the Holocaust, or need to revise their criticisms of American Jewish behavior during the Holocaust.
10) The main unspoken question in this whole controversy, and the main protagonist whose motives have not been question, is of course Barak Obama. Why does he focus blame on the foreign guest rather than his local rivals in congress, neither of whom he likes very much? As far as I know, no one has addressed this question.
11) Officially, Obama has said that the speech might derail delicate negotiations. This seems a dubious claim. A speech such as Bibi’s might serve as a lever to enable Obama to obtain from Iran whatever concessions he still feels are lacking by enabling him to present himself as the good guy in contrast to the nay-sayers at home. I don’t see how it could really derail the agreement. If it really could do so, Bibi has no choice but to take action against an agreement he sees as lethal for his country, whatever the personal cost.
12) Other motivations probably play a role here. Obama may be annoyed that the speech will help Bibi win an election in Israel. If that is his motive, he is certainly interfering in the Israeli democratic process. It is Israel’s prerogative to decide whether Bibi may accept the invitation on that grounds or not, and to decide whether to broadcast the speech or not. Paradoxically, Obama’s reaction has lead to Bibi’s rise in the polls.
13) Finally, Obama may simply be fuming at Bibi. There is a tendency for people to get more angry at an uncooperative friend than at a dangerous enemy. Obviously Obama feels personally slighted by the fact that he was informed, but not asked, about the invitation. But how could he expect a personal request from someone his staff has referred to as a chickenshit?
14) In short we do not find that Obama is compelled by US interests to make this into an issue so volatile that friends of Israel think it may irreparably harm US-Israel relations. He would do better to respect the decision of congress to conduct its proceedings as it wishes. The only real danger to US-Israel relations is that Obama might over-react. Possessing freedom of choice, Obama is uniquely positioned to control that outcome if he wishes to do so. Since the only real error here is Obama’s inapprorpiate behavior, friends of Israel might have decided that pressuring Obama to relent would be the most appropriate path to preserving US-Israel relations, but so far they have largely declined to do so.
15) Critics sometimes point to Bibi’s bad relations with Obama, as well as with several European leaders, as a sign that he is in the wrong. Historically, however, Israel has always been treated badly by these people. It was in 2001 that a French ambassador called Israel a “shitty little country,” and that was when Ehud Barack was prime minister. Jimmy Carter made a stink about the fact that Menahem Begin wouldn’t kiss his daughter good-night. He has never apologized, but he should (I means Jimmy of course). There are many cases where good people have been treated badly by the bad. This is true not just in the case of Jews, but in the cases of all peoples who have suffered genocides, esnalvement, racist treatment. Obama himself has bad relations with congress, and is not very well liked abroad. It is understandable that he would not have good relations with a nation which he must place in peril as part of his global change of priorities. The disrespect Bibi suffers cannot be explained merely as a reaction to his own abrasiveness or even simply as anti-semitism. As with numerous other Israeli leaders, his bad treatment results in large part from his unwillingness to cooperate with the plans they have concocted for his nation. It is simply impossible to be on friendly terms with international leaders while telling them that one completely rejects their policies and views. And that is the first requirement of any Israeli leader.
The best way to judge this squabble is to ask yourself the following question: do friends allow friends to make agreements with genocidal regimes at their own expense, out of a sense of friendship? Or do friends refrain from making such agreements out of a sense of friendship? It all depends on your point of view.