Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday February 1st, 2015
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in March, it will be his third such appearance before that body. In the history of the Republic only one other person has been so honored - Britain’s famed wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In those early years of WWII, after Adolf Hitler’s Nazi war machine had taken over much of Europe and Britain was standing alone against a very possible German invasion, Churchill would have given a great deal to be invited to make his case directly to the Congress, on Britain’s desperate need for American help. But actually, Churchill’s first appearance before the U.S. Congress was in December 26th, 1941. That was three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declarations of war against Japan and Germany. Before that, American public opinion had been sharply divided over entry into the war. And a Churchill speech to Congress would have been seen as a foreigner interfering in a domestic American political debate.
Such sensibilities evidently no longer exist. Prime Minister Netanyahu was invited to speak to Congress on Islamic extremism and the nuclear talks with Iran, by House Speaker John Boehner, who chose not to advise the White House he was doing so. This was not just a breach of diplomatic niceties. Netanyahu got his invitation because his frequently stated views on these subjects are completely at odds with President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies. They are however in sync with most Republican and a few Democratic critics of the president.
It also should come as no surprise that Boehner was effectively put up to this unprecedented insult to the president by Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to Washington. Dermer was born an American who fairly recently became an Israeli. It seems one of his credentials for this very important job was that he had previously worked as a Republican party consultant and pollster. The New York Times reported this past week that Ambassador Dermer held a lengthy meeting on Middle East issues with Secretary of State John Kerry, right before the Netanyahu invitation was announced. But, alas, Dermer failed to alert the secretary to this minor tidbit of information.
The Obama administration has been remarkably forgiving of what has been a consistent series of personal insults from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters in Israel and this country.
What is behind this? Prominent Israelis such as former President Shimon Peres say - and the record shows - that of all previous presidents Obama has been one of Israel’s strongest supporters. There have been no threats to reduce the $2 billion plus annual military aid programs. On the contrary there has been generous sharing of American high tech - and intelligence along with complete diplomatic support in the United Nations where the American veto in the Security Council keeps Israel’s opponents at bay.
Obama’s critics say Netanyahu was bothered by the president’s early initiative to open a dialogue with Muslims; that his indecision on Syria made the civil war there much worse; but most of all, that Obama’s desire to get a nuclear deal with Iran will be a threat to Israel’s security.
I would like to submit my own theory as to why Netanyahu has chosen to demonize Obama. It’s because the president had the temerity to suggest that if the Israelis were really serious about wanting successful peace negotiations with the Palestinians, they should agree to a freeze on West Bank settlements. The Israelis have fended off every American president on this issue, all of whom saw settlements as an obstacle to peace but none of whom obtained a tangible settlement freeze. .
At the time, I agreed with Obama in principle, but I felt that unless he was prepared to threaten and even cut aid to Israel - and then to publicly defend this position against a predictably hostile reaction in Congress and most of the news media - he shouldn’t make settlements a major issue. Netanyahu was not about to be persuaded with anything less than full scale diplomatic war. Calculating he would not have to face one, he rather easily forced Obama to back down.
Netanyahu’s subsequent contempt for President Obama, was never more evident than in May 2011 when he turned a routine Oval Office photo-op into a lengthy, condescending lecture to the president on his lack of understanding of the Middle East, televised live around the globe.
Then, the very next day, Netanyahu made his second appearance before the U.S. Congress, where he delivered a hardline, no concessions on Mideast peace speech. For that, the man who had publicly humiliated the president of the United States the day before, was given 29 standing ovations.
I am not concerned with Obama’s ego, bruised or otherwise. What concerns me is that this next time, Netanyahu may do much more serious damage. His position is that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Israel will face an existential threat. Therefore he wants to persuade a presidential veto-proof majority in Congress that unless Iran totally capitulates and accepts a nuclear agreement, basically on Israel’s maximum terms, it would be better for there to be no agreement.
But the most likely consequence of that argument is that it means eventually the United States will be obliged to go to war to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. And the biggest folly of such a potentially disastrous, unnecessary war, is that it would keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for a year or two at most.
I know it is very unfashionable to say this, but what kept the Cold War from becoming a hot one, was MAD - mutual assured destruction. The US nuclear arsenal, and Israel’s own significant nuclear capability, ought to be recognized for what they are- major deterrents to the misuse of nuclear weapons by Iran or its proxies. Meantime, diplomats should be given every chance to find a reasonable alternative to war.
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