Israel’s Republican prime minister

Sure Iran mustn't be allowed to go nuclear, but Netanyahu's speech to Congress has little to with Israel's security

For many years, I have watched and participated in the flourishing of the American-Israel relationship. Our alliance with the Americans is at the very core of Israel’s security strategy. The foundational pillar of AIPAC and the pro-Israel community in America is bipartisan US support for Israel and, until recently, this was entirely uncontroversial. The relationship between our countries is based on both shared values and tremendous shared strategic interests, and siding with one party over another is obviously detrimental to the relationship.

Benjamin Netanyahu and I agree that Iran cannot be permitted to become a nuclear, or nuclear-threshold, state. A nuclear Iran would be a profound, even existential, threat, not just to us, but to the entire world. Not only would it spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but it is also not beyond the Iranians to hand off nuclear material to terrorists. Both are too awful too countenance.

No matter who is in power in Jerusalem, the government would do everything in its power to prevent Iran from going nuclear. All options are always on the table.

Having said all of this, the Israeli prime minister addressing a Republican US Congress two weeks before an Israeli election, over the objections of the Democratic President of the United States, is nothing short of obscene.

It is not as if US congressmen, senators and the president are not aware of our position on this issue. It is one thing when the president invites the prime minister – as he has done in the past – to address Congress on the Iranian issue. A speech to Congress in such circumstances can be extraordinarily helpful in terms of international politics and diplomacy.

It is another thing entirely to do it over the objections of the president. There can be only two reasons for such a thing: to turn support for Israel into a political issue in the United States, and to produce a multiple-news-cycle-long campaign advertisement for Netanyahu’s Likud in the run-up to domestic elections. I am not certain that the two are unrelated to each other.

Netanyahu has demonstrated, time and again, that he sees Republicans as friends of Israel, and Democrats as something else. Netanyahu effectively campaigned for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, and if anyone were fooled into believing this was just a rift between Netanyahu and Barack Obama, Netanyahu’s refusal to meet congressional Democrats this week should have put all doubts to rest.

Support for Israel has long been keenly bipartisan amongst the public and on Capitol Hill, and nothing on the horizon even remotely threatened that strong support. Until Bibi. Netanyahu has been described in the Israeli press as a political pyromaniac, and for good reason: he is torching US-Israel relations, to the point where a US National Security Advisor described Netanyahu’s speech as “destructive of the fabric of the relationship.” In fact, listening to Susan Rice on Charlie Rose, it is hard not to wonder who is the better advocate for Israel: the prime minister, or the US National Security Advisor.

The reason is very simple. As Alon Pinkas, former consul general in New York, said, “The Netanyahu myth is that he alone understands the Americans. He is a grumpy, old man. He’s like a Republican senator from West Jerusalem. He talks like them, he dresses like them. He is always saying, ‘They’re against me! They don’t like me!’ He’s dealing with an America he doesn’t know.”

Against the advice of all manner of former Israeli generals and intelligence chiefs who emerge in the press by their droves day after day opposing this speech, Netanyahu is dead-set on making it. Why? There’s an election on March 17, and Netanyahu smells electoral loss in the air.

Netanyahu’s default position, when faced with domestic political challenges, is to pivot to security issues, which are his strength. Last week, the comptroller came out with a report damning the Netanyahu government for overseeing a full-blown housing crisis. The cost of housing has risen 55 percent in only five years, and ordinary Israelis are unable to keep up. Netanyahu’s (widely-pilloried) response? He tweeted, “When we talk about housing costs, about the cost of living, I don’t for a moment forget life itself. The greatest challenge to our lives right now is the Iranian bid to obtain nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu is electioneering in the United States two weeks before an Israeli election. He is using the podium in the United States Congress as his campaign stump, and his audience is none other than the domestic Israeli electorate. Americans and Israelis are rightly appalled by this abuse of the Congress, the affront to a sitting US presidents, and, as Susan Rice said, the very fabric of the US-Israel relationship. But that is just collateral damage from Netanyahu’s domestic political considerations.

We need to work together with the Americans on the Iranian threat. My hope is that on March 17, Israelis will recognize the threat emanating from the prime minister’s residence, and will send Netanyahu packing. Enough is enough; it is time we confronted the Iranian nuclear challenge in a serious and responsible way, side by side with the Americans – not by endangering our historic bipartisan strategic alliance with them.

About the Author
MK Hilik Bar is General Secretary of the Labor Party, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and co-chairperson of the Knesset Caucus for Jerusalem.
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