Naomi Chazan

Netanyahu can’t square the circle

The planned speech risks Israel's relationship with the US and pushes Diaspora Jews into a dangerous corner

The controversy over Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on speaking before a joint session of Congress two weeks before the Israeli elections is about to reach a crescendo which will not dissipate after his appearance on Capitol Hill tomorrow. Rarely has one (still to be delivered) speech garnered so much attention; even more infrequently have so many objectives been collapsed into a sole, brief, oratorical performance. Prime Minister Netanyahu truly believes that in a single speech he can square the circle: that he can prevent a deal between the major powers and Iran without compromising Israel’s long-term security, undermining the Israeli relationship with the United States, fueling the growing unease with his policies in the Jewish world and adversely affecting his slipping electoral support at home. Where does this self-assurance come from and where does it lead? And what does all this do for Israel’s interests in the long-term?

There is really nothing new in the Netanyahu government’s opposition to the emerging agreement between the key nuclear powers and Iran. Unlike most of Israel’s leading security experts, the outgoing coalition views any accord with Iran as a form of appeasement that will eventually endanger Israel’s very existence (neatly sidestepping more imminent issues such as the unwillingness to address, let alone resolve, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Although Netanyahu has been unable to offer any workable alternative to such a pact, he is bent on thwarting its realization.

The connection, however, between this goal and the method chosen to advance it remains unclear. Is appearing before Congress against the express wish of Barack Obama the last resort in Mr. Netanyahu’s effort to quash an Iranian deal? Are no other means available? Realistically, the best that he can hope to achieve is to keep the topic on the agenda and perhaps — should no arrangement be struck — retroactively take some credit for its failure.

The price of such an outcome, however, is far from insignificant. In the first instance, under the guise of protecting Israel’s security, Netanyahu is knowingly risking Israel’s most important strategic asset: its relationship with the United States. Even though in the past there have been disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem, none have involved so brazenly taunting the White House by going behind its back and appealing to a confrontational Congress controlled by its main opponents — especially when there is no certainty that Congress has the desire or the capacity to halt a deal with Iran. No Israeli leader (including David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, whose names Netanyahu is invoking with abandon in his election clips) ever so purposefully endangered the bipartisan nature of Israel’s support in the United States. Such meddling not only weakens the strategic connection between the two countries (or, as Susan Rice put it, is “destructive to the fabric of the relationship”), it also undercuts the normative foundation upon which it rests.

Secondly, in the name of the Jewish people — but hardly at their behest — Binyamin Netanyahu may be placing not only American Jews, but perhaps world Jewry in its entirety, in an impossible situation. Despite multiple requests from Jewish leaders who have consistently backed him in the past to scrap or delay his trip, he is nevertheless charging ahead, thus forcing them to choose between their President and the Israeli prime minister. Any Israeli leader who truly cares about the resilience of Jewish life in the democratic world would never purposefully create such a conflict of interest. Nor would a responsible Israeli statesperson consciously pit U.S. Jewry’s concern with Israel against their loyalty to their country and to the democratic values it embodies. The basis for the identification of Jews in free societies with Israel in the future may be put into question in the process.

And finally, in the absence of an understanding on postponing Iran’s nuclear program — which also allows for close external monitoring of existing facilities — Israel’s strategic vulnerability actually increases. Why inviting such an eventuality at this juncture prevents what Netanyahu considers the most serious existential threat to Israel remains a complete mystery.

So, in light of the obvious risks involved, why then is Binyamin Netanyahu in Washington now? According to some, given the timing, this is nothing but a grandiose election ploy. It allows the leader of the Likud to galvanize his electoral base, to prove once again that he can stand up when necessary to anyone with impunity — including Israel’s only major ally and arguably the greatest power in the world — and, through his mastery of the English language, gain perhaps one or two seats in what is developing into the closest election contest since the turn of the century. But, cynicism aside, this trip — opposed by the majority of the electorate — will neither succeed in deflecting attention from the domestic issues which preoccupy so many Israelis nor necessarily win back those voters abandoning the Likud in favor of other, more potentially promising, options (why else is Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party so bent on accompanying Netanyahu on this voyage?).

If this is not just an electoral gamble bordering on desperation, then perhaps it is indicative of a stubbornness born of arrogance? Some pundits have gone to great pains to prove that Benjamin Netanyahu’s blatant disregard of the advice of many of his closest associates is just another indication of his hubris. In his quest to put his mark on Israel’s history, they claim, he is subordinating the country to his own personal agenda. In their eyes the Iranian fetish is but a cover for a deep paranoia that has served as a substitute for measured policy in a complex regional environment. Even if Mr. Netanyahu’s comportment is accompanied by large doses of overconfidence, do his personality quirks alone explain his decision to embark on his latest Washington venture?

It may be, then, that there is something to the claim that Binyamin Netanyahu’s trip is propelled, above all, by a deep conviction in the justness of his mission. But even if he believes that by going to Capitol Hill he is advancing Israel’s security, he has yet to prove that he has truly explored all other options and that this is the only way left for him to achieve a modicum of safety for Israel down the line.

The reasons for this trip are, in all probability, a mixture of all of these — and possibly other — factors. Whatever the causes, it will take nothing short of incredible rhetorical magic to avoid substantial negative fallout. And Netanyahu is not a magician: in what may be a particularly debatable move under the guise of protecting Israel, he could be endangering the country’s most essential interests. Not even the greatest master of the spoken word, waxing at his most eloquent, can square a circle in one speech; nor should he attempt to do so (especially when, unintentionally, he might consequently harm Israel’s security and legitimacy).

True leaders of historical magnitude shun the reckless and the inadvisable and pave the way — through their words and actions — to molding a better tomorrow. The best one can hope for, under these circumstances, is that the American Jewish community, the Israel-U.S. relationship, the quest for regional security and Israel’s democracy survive this one, superfluous, performance.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.