One Year Later, Looking Back At Bibi’s Speech To Congress

It was almost exactly a year ago, as some fifteen thousand pro-Israel activists were gathered at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to our nation’s capital to address a joint session of Congress on the subject of the then-pending nuclear deal between Iran and the United States.

The Prime Minister’s appearance before Congress– a rare event for a foreign head of state– had been conceived of and arranged by Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington. President Obama was aggressively promoting the deal with Iran, placing enormous pressure on fellow Democrats to support him. Congressman John Boehner, then Speaker of the House, represented a Republican majority firmly against the deal, and eager to frustrate the will of the President. Ambassador Dermer saw an opening, and prevailed upon Speaker Boehner to invite Netanyahu to, essentially, lobby Congress as a whole in an address to a joint session of both houses.

Whether or not President Obama, with whom I strongly disagreed on the merits of the proposed deal with Iran, was aware of the Dermer-Boehner deal before the invitation to Netanyahu was issued is still a subject of some disagreement. But I wrote at the time, and I still believe, that it’s largely irrelevant. The fact that the Prime Minister of Israel saw fit to come to the American Congress and speak out against the President’s plan in such a dramatically public way was, to me, off the charts of any chutzpah-meter that one might measure by. That Speaker Boehner invited him doesn’t change the calculus. He had his own agenda with the President. Essentially, everyone was using everyone else. Boehner had a chance to embarrass the President, Netanyahu had a last-ditch chance to frustrate the (very bad) deal, and many of us in the Zionist community who were passionately opposed to the deal believed that the Prime Minister was making a serious error based on a political miscalculation. I still believe that the Iran deal was an awful deal that should never have been agreed to, and I also still believe that Netanyahu was wrong.

At the time, it seemed to me that Prime Minister Netanyahu was basically rolling the dice. He was betting that the Republicans would win the next Presidential election, and he would not have to worry about fallout in new Democratic administration from his aforementioned Congressional appearance. At this moment, I find myself asking… how did that work for you, Bibi?

This is not about the Iran deal any more. That train has left the station. The deal is fatally flawed, and we will all pay the price at some point down the road.  What it’s about is that any calculations that Netanyahu might have made about the upcoming presidential elections are now going up in smoke as Donald Trump lays waste to all conventional wisdom about pretty much everything having to do with American presidential politics.

Play it out. If the last vestige of conventional presidential politics survives, and in a general election Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, faces Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, the chances are good that Trump would lose. In no way could a Hillary victory be construed as a result that the Prime Minister would have been hoping for. And if Hillary’s e-mails and speeches to Goldman Sachs catch up with her, and Bernie Sanders winds up becoming the first Jewish President, does anyone think that would be good for Israel? Hardly!

But of course, Trump has confounded every prediction of imminent self-destruction so far, so who knows? Suppose that he does run the table, beats Hillary in a general election, and winds up– I can’t believe I’m actually writing this– President Trump. Does that make any lover of Israel and her security feel all that much better about the next four years? Trump has given very little indication of what his attitude towards Israel and the Palestinian issue would be other than to say that he would want to be an honest broker, and that he would be “very, very tough” on Muslim fundamentalists. His inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims is at least as likely to ignite further violence in the Middle East as it is to accomplish anything constructive. Is that the result that Netanyahu could have been hoping for?

As American politics goes, very little is as it was a year ago. Bibi’s big gamble on a Republican victory– his role of the dice– was predicated on a version of American presidential politics that is giving every indication of being passé. We here in America are spending a lot of time, and rightly so, being concerned about what our beloved country might look like come the day after elections. But frankly, so should Israel. It all looks different a year later…different, and not at all better for America, or for Israel.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.