It might be difficult to remember how Americans on the leftish side of the political spectrum—Americans of different races, religions, and ethnicity, but all sharing a liberal cast of mind—reacted when Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then (as now) prime minister of Israel, addressed a joint session of Congress to express opposition to the Iran nuclear deal that the Obama administration was trying to finalize in 2015.
A quick dive into the internet reveals that those reactions ranged from disappointment to apoplexy; it was thought to be outrageous that the leader of the Israeli government should interject his own opinions into an internal debate about the appropriate position of the United States on a matter relating to a third country other than Israel.
Fifty-eight Democratic members of Congress simply refused to attend the speech. President Obama disclosed that he did not watch the speech, but he had reviewed the transcript and found that Netanyahu had offered “nothing new” and no “viable alternatives” to the proposed deal with Iran. Then-Vice President Biden’s office announced that he would be traveling on the day of the speech and could not attend.
Bernie Sanders, the junior Senator from Vermont, stated that Netanyahu’s “address, arranged without consultation with the White House, improperly interfered with President Barack Obama’s leading role in charting U.S. foreign policy.” Senators Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin warned Netanyahu that his speech “threatens to undermine the important bipartisan approach towards Israel … [and] could have lasting repercussions.” Pres. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, said that the speech would be “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the United States and Israel. Keith Ellison, a Muslim member of the House from Minnesota, said the speech was “improper.” Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who was then the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the speech “a political stunt aimed at undercutting President Obama.”
One other thing that should be remembered is that, although Israel of course was never going to be a formal, fully-fledged party to the Iran nuclear deal, Israel nevertheless had a real, undeniable interest in how Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be dealt with by the world’s leading powers. After all, it was a former president of Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who in 1999 said, “If there is ever a nuclear confrontation — Israel is a small country, it will not be able to take even one bomb. It is a small country and can be destroyed easily[.]” In 2012, Rafsanjani said that his statement had been meant as advice, but Israelis mistakenly “interpreted my advice as a threat. We deeply believe that nuclear weapons must not exist, and this has been part of our policy.”
Whether the “one bomb” comment by a former president of Iran was advice or a threat might be debatable, but there cannot be any doubt that the political leadership of that “one bomb” country, Israel, is duty-bound to plan for the worst rather than simply assuming the best. So, Israel had in 2015, and continues to have today, a real interest—an interest that arguably could be said to relate to the very survival of the State and its citizens—in any Iranian effort to develop nuclear weapons.
Now fast-forward from 2015 to 2023. There is a new political issue in the headlines: Whether Israel’s Supreme Court should be overhauled to make it more responsive to, and less independent of, Israel’s executive branch of government and the Knesset. As we all know, this issue has created massive divisions in Israeli public opinion. Many orthodox Jewish Israelis want to see the overhaul passed into law, while many secular Israeli Jews and some Israeli Arabs are firmly in opposition.
You might think that the relationship between Israel’s Supreme Court and the two other branches of Israel’s government would be an issue that would be of little interest to anyone outside Israel. You’d be wrong. None other than Joe Biden, the president of the United States—who was vice president when he decided to skip Netanyahu’s speech in 2015—has said that “as a strong supporter of Israel,” he “is very concerned … that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road … [H]opefully the prime minister will act in a way that he will try to work out some genuine compromise, but that remains to be seen.”
And Bernie Sanders, still the junior Senator from Vermont and still the person who said Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was improper interference with U.S. foreign policy, tweeted: “I applaud the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens peacefully protesting against their extreme government’s actions. Israel deserves a fully democratic government that protects the rights of all and works to assure peace and dignity for Palestinians and Israelis alike.” So he too is very interested in Israel’s proposed judicial overhaul.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture: When the prime minister of Israel expresses his opinion about how to deal with nuclear aspirations of a country, Iran, whose senior leadership sees Israel as too small to survive even “one bomb,” that prime minister’s opinion is an improper, dangerous, and destructive interference in the affairs of the United States. The prime minister should just butt out. But, in contrast, when the president of the United States and bunches of senior Democratic politicians publicly and pointedly weigh in on whether or not Israel’s judiciary should be overhauled, that’s perfectly, completely, self-evidently, and unequivocally A-O.K.