The Conventional Wisdom about Bibi’s Speech and Why it is Wrong

From almost every corner it is being proclaimed that Bibi’s decision to address the US Congress next week has endangered American bipartisan support for Israel and has created a crisis in US-Israel relations.

This meme which keeps echoing back and forth between the White House and the liberal press in America and in Israel is intended, by those who promulgate it, to create the appearance of a full blown crisis in US-Israel relations which can only be repaired by Israeli voters deciding to turn Bibi out of office. Between the White House, the NY Times, and Haaretz, this pseudo-crisis has now been ginned up to a level that threatens to sink Bibi’s reelection bid. Not that I support Bibi’s reelection, but I certainly oppose the way in which his decision to address the US Congress on the subject of the Iranian nuclear threat has been politicized in the US and in Israel by the White House and its minions while it is claimed by these same officials, journalists and pundits that it is Bibi who has politicized matters and put at risk the bipartisan consensus in support for Israel.

Friday’s spin in the daily news cycle brought forth an op-ed by Isaac Herzog in the NYT in which he accuses Bibi of undermining US bipartisan support for Israel, but then goes on to largely endorse Bibi’s assessment of the magnitude of the Iranian existential threat. But more important by far is how all of this is playing in the Israeli press before an Israeli public which knows that Israel’s long term security ultimately depends upon the strength of the US-Israel alliance. So it must have brought pleasure to the White House to read an editorial in Friday’s Haaretz which forcefully proclaimed that Bibi must not be reelected because he is destroying the US-Israel alliance by his reckless and narrowly self-interested decision to go ahead with his plans to deliver his speech to the US Congress about how Israel sees the Iranian threat. Thus, in the explicit opinion of Haaretz, Bibi’s reelection represents an existential threat to Israel, not because he would perpetuate the occupation but because Bibi has already undermined the US-Israel alliance, and only the election of a new government with Herzog and Livni at the helm might be able to repair the damage.

Of course what the Cassandras on both sides of the Atlantic conveniently overlook is the fact that there really isn’t a crisis in US-Israel relations. The support of the American people for Israel is strong overall and bipartisan, though admittedly GOP support is significantly greater. The support of the US Congress is wall to wall and manifestly bipartisan. And even Susan Rice, speaking for the administration, reaffirms that the cooperation between the two allies could not be better.

Obviously the administration does have a problem with Bibi, and clearly it would prefer to see someone else as Prime Minister. But of course the White House cannot say this openly since that would constitute meddling in an ally’s internal political process, which may be something which is done all the time, but which is never to be acknowledged or done overtly. So all this talk of Bibi creating a crisis in the alliance that places Israel’s very existence at risk is just a lot of hot air, which has been echoed and reechoed by those whose partisan desire to unseat Bibi is patent.

The other irony is that should the Obama administration’s efforts prove successful in bringing Herzog-Livni to power, they will likely find that the change in personnel does not yield the hoped-for tractability when it comes to Iran or the Palestinians. What Team Obama fails to acknowledge is that the real “problem” is not Bibi but is the fact that regarding Iran and the practical achievability of a two-state solution, most Israelis agree with Bibi’s policies, which is why the electoral debate in Israel has not focused on those issues where the Herzog-Livni platform is really very close to Likud’s, as is evidenced by the substance of Herzog’s remarks in Friday’s NY Times.

But it must be stated, finally, that if there is a threat to the bipartisan consensus in support of Israel, it is the Obama administration’s ongoing response to Bibi’s upcoming speech, not Bibi’s decision to give the speech, which is the source of this threat. Even if the White House was unhappy to hear that Bibi was coming to town, it could have responded in a way that would have sought to minimize any negative fallout from the speech for US-Israel relations. But the temptation to try and use Bibi’s decision to come to Washington at this time in a way that might doom his reelection bid was too great, and to this end the administration needed to promulgate the meme that Bibi was recklessly precipitating a crisis in US-Israel relations, and behaving in a way which no truly responsible Israeli leader who took seriously the responsibilities of his office would ever do.

This may all turn out very badly for Bibi electorally. But of more significance ultimately is that the rift in bipartisan support which the White House has threatened may become the new reality as a consequence of the game the administration has been playing since Bibi’s trip to Washington was first announced. In sum, if recklessness might be defined as acting in a manner that is heedless of the potentially negative consequences that may follow, it was not Bibi;s decision to accept Boehner’s invitation, but the White House’s decision to gin up the appearance of a crisis in US-Israel relations that was truly reckless.

About the Author
Trained as a political theorist at Columbia University and in Religious Studies at Harvard, Michael Gottsegen (Ph.D., 1989) has worked in and out of academia since the early 1990s, having taught at Columbia and Brandeis before coming to Brown. A book based on his thesis, "The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt," was published in 1994.
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