In 2011, during the course of one hardline speech to the US Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commanded 29 standing ovations from both sides of the political aisle. That’s four more than President Obama received in the congressional chamber that year during his State of the Union address.
Four years later, as Netanyahu prepares to address Congress on Tuesday, one might be excused for thinking that we’re looking at a different political terrain, with thunderous applause on Capitol Hill replaced by high profile boycotts: 30 Democrats — four senators and 26 representatives — have said they will not attend the speech.
US-Israeli relations may be slipping on a rare icy patch. Bibi circumvented the White House to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to the Republican-heavy Congress. It’s the apotheosis of undiplomatic. But when the Israeli PM told Israel lobbying group AIPAC on Monday that the Israel-US relationship will “weather the current disagreement,” he was right. And that’s the problem.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, affirmed the point at the same conference: “The US-Israel partnership transcends politics and it always will.” But Power’s comment needs some revision. US-Israeli relations don’t transcend politics — they are rooted in a deep political commitment, buoyed by a powerful lobby, to upholding a Jewish colonial ethnocracy in the Middle East. The messy ups and downs of international realpolitik will not shake the relationship in any core way. A rift that should open between Israel and the US will not.
Democrats, including a number of Jewish Democrats, may boycott Bibi over a diplomatic and partisan slight, but support for Israel remains an American political given, regardless of human rights violations and war crimes against Palestinians.
In his speech, Netanyahu will regurgitate his same line of the past 20 years, predicting Israel’s imminent destruction at the hands of a nuclear Iran, in order to undermine a crucial deal currently on the table between Iran and the P5+1 nations (UN Security Council Members plus Germany).
To be sure, the spat between the Israeli PM and the Obama administration over Iran will not be easily resolved — primarily because Netanyahu has made abundantly clear that he will treat any deal between Iran and the West as an existential blow to Israel.
The reality is that Iran is further away from the ability to build a nuclear bomb under moderate leader Hassan Rouhani than it was under his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But you’d never guess it from Bibi’s bellicose rhetoric. However, in boycotting Bibi’s speech, Democrats are not taking a stand in the name of Western-Iranian peace. The Israeli PM’s address has caused an offense, first and foremost, as a slight to US diplomacy; it’s a spat of political decorum, not international ethics.
On the real question of peace in the Middle East, Israel and the US remain firmly aligned and immutably hawkish. The US provides $8.5 million in military aid to Israel each day. When last December, the Palestinian Authority put forward a resolution in the UN Security Council for Palestinian statehood, the US was one of only two nations (along with Australia) to vote against it, having also vowed to use its power of veto against the resolution. The Obama administration supported Israel’s deadly 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed as many as 2,130 Palestinians, including over 500 children, according the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Critics of Netanyahu’s stance on Iran have pointed gleefully this week to the comments of a former head of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. Meir Dagan called the prime minister’s policies “destructive to the future and security of Israel.” But that’s not all. He urged Netanyahu against sparring with US allies for fear of losing America’s “umbrella veto” against international sanctions being brought against Israel for its human rights and laws of war violations.
The ex-Mossad chief was thus admitting in no uncertain terms that Israel could face significant and material international censure if not for unblinking US defense. It’s a tacit admission that grounds for such sanctions are strong. And they are: as Amnesty International found during the last major incursion on Gaza, “Israeli forces have brazenly flouted the laws of war by carrying out a series of attacks on civilian homes, displaying callous indifference to the carnage caused.”
Dagan has no reason for concern on this front, however. US statesmen reserve their boycotts of Israeli policy for the pageantry of Congressional addresses; when it matters, American mainstream political dissent from Israel is nowhere to be seen.