Netanyahu addresses Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress on March 3 was unprecedented in many ways.

  • It constituted a major breach of protocol, in that it was the first time the Speaker of the House has extended such an invitation without consulting the Administration or the opposition party.

  • It took place just two weeks prior to national elections in the foreign leader’s home country, thereby giving the impression of an endorsement of his campaign by what Netanyahu noted was “the most important legislative body in the world.” 

  • An invitation to speak before a joint session of Congress is a rare honor. Indeed, the only other foreign leader besides Netanyahu to appear before such a joint session of Congress on three occasions was Winston Churchill. Underscoring the high regard Congress has for the right-wing Israeli leader, Speaker of the House John Boehner presented him with a bust of the late British prime minister.

  • Most strikingly, Netanyahu is the only foreign leader to have been invited to address a joint session of Congress with the express purpose of undermining U.S. foreign policy: in this case, the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, currently entering their sensitive final stages.

Some pundits have speculated on the reaction if the Democrats had invited French president Jacques Chirac to criticize President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, or Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to criticize President Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy.

The difference, though, is that Chirac and Arias represented the vast majority of international opinion in opposing U.S. policy, whereas—in the case of the Iran talks— the vast majority of international opinion appears to be in support of the ongoing negotiations.

Indeed, these nuclear talks are not a unilateral initiative of the Obama Administration. The United States is one of six world powers (the others being Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia) empowered by the United Nations to pursue these negotiations. If one were to believe Netanyahu and his Congressional allies, the international community is naively appeasing the Iranians, with only him and the U.S. Congressional leadership possessing the wisdom and understanding to recognize the supposed Iranian threat.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has been a strident supporter of the right-wing Israeli prime minister, praising Netanyahu’s harsh rebukes of President Obama's Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives in 2011 by declaring, "I think it's clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace."

This time, however, she observed that the Israeli leader’s remarks were an “insult to the intelligence of the United States as part of the P5 +1 nations” and that she was “saddened by the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran and our broader commitment to preventing nuclear proliferation."

Among the many misleading aspects of Netanyahu’s address was his failure to acknowledge the tremendous progress that diplomatic efforts have already made in halting expansion and rolling back Iran's nuclear program. Whereas international inspectors had previously been able to visit Iran’s facilities once every few weeks (or even months), they are now being monitored daily. The Obama Administration has made clear they will not accept any agreement that would allow the Iranians to develop enough fissionable material to come anywhere less than a one year breakout period of developing even a single nuclear weapon.

Given that the negotiations with Iran are secret and no one outside those negotiations is even familiar with the details of the various proposals being discussed, it is profoundly presumptuous for Netanyahu and the Republicans to condemn the process. In essence, then, what they are disagreeing with is any kind of negotiated settlement. Netanyahu and his Congressional allies insist that a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities and allowing unprecedented access to that country’s nuclear facilities would somehow threaten Israel and the United States, while breaking off talks and thereby allowing Iran to accelerate its nuclear program would somehow make our countries more secure.

In many respects, opponents to the Obama Administration’s nuclear talks with Iran parallel those who opposed the Ford and Carter administrations’ nuclear talks with the Soviet Union: Their argument is based upon the assumption that negotiations in and of themselves somehow constitute appeasement, that the other side is fanatical and cannot be trusted (even with strict verification procedures), and that sanctions and threats of war are the only way to go.  

In reality, it is Netanyahu and his supporters, not the Obama Administration, who are naïve, thinking that Iran would simply buckle under U.S./Israeli threats to eliminate its nuclear program. They want a return to the Bush Administration policy of threats and ultimatums, which went nowhere. Indeed, under Bush, Iran's nuclear program expanded and there was a real threat of a disastrous military confrontation.

While several dozen Democrats boycotted the speech, the vast majority were in attendance, many giving the right-wing Israeli leader standing ovations as he attacked the American President. Among those on Netanyahu’s official “escort committee” were New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, whom Congressional Democrats have chosen as their foreign policy spokesperson as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Brad Sherman of California, second-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Republicans and their Democratic allies are attempting to convince the American public to trust a right-wing foreign leader without any direct knowledge of the actual negotiations on what is in the best interest of peace and security over that of the elected President and America’s closest NATO allies. They cheered when Netanyahu made a series of demonstrably false claims regarding Iran: that the Shia republic collaborates with Al-Qaeda and other Sunni movements which are, in fact, its sworn enemies; Iran “dominates” Arab governments that are actually backed by the United States; Iran is supposedly “gobbling up” other nations; and that the nuclear deal would somehow “all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.”

What is often forgotten is that Netanyahu’s alarmism is not new. During his first address before a joint session of Congress in 1996, he declared that Iran was "extremely close" to developing nuclear weapons and that failure to act immediately would risk "the lives of our children and our grandchildren."

What is disturbing is that so many in Congress still believe him.

 

 

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.

 

Section: 

Comments

The real damage Netanyahu has done to Israel is that he prompted ordinary Americans to ask, "Why are the U.S. and Israel so close?"
Another illuminating article by Prof. Zunes about the Israel-US relationship that, however, always leaves a critical question about the relationship unanswered, namely, why are the overwhelming majorities of both parties and both houses supporting Israel? Could the answer lie somewhere between fear of the power of the Israel Lobby (which he tends to either ignore or dismiss) and the need of campaign funds by well heeled Jewish donors?
Excellent analysis. Netanyahu's ill-advised speech damaged relations with the United States, Israel's principal remaining ally in the world, and undermined the negotiations to end Iran's nuclear capability. His invasion of Gaza killing hundreds of women and children and his persistent construction of settlements in the West Bank on Arab lands have made Israel a pariah among civilized nations.
As an American, I resent that the Speaker of the House upstaged our Commander in Chief in time of war by inviting Netanyahu without consultation. And I'm fed up with America being the big dog wagged by the tail of the most expansionist faction of Israelis. Don't these expansionists know we are aiding the most secular, least antisemitic groups around the whole Middle East since Bush 43 destroyed Iraq? Don't they know bombing ISIS risks our pilots being shot down (and graphically murdered) or more terror attacks against Americans? I challenge the expansionists to deal with FACTS that show the fear of Iran, or pretense of fear, is exaggerated. FACT: The U.S. and U.K. overthrew Iran's first elected leader in 1953 and re-installed its' Shah (King). President Ahmadinejad made explicit threats to eliminate Israel. But he wasn’t all powerful. While President, he himself was arrested in April 2013, and a new president was elected in 2014. Iran has a fatwa, a religious prohibition, against nuclear weapons and has signed international treaties against nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Israel has not signed these treaties. FACT: Israel has sufficient nuclear weapons to assure destruction of any Middle East nation that would so attack it. In "The NUMEC affair," by 1966, Israel got, without our governmental permission, up to 100 kg. of our bomb grade uranium. In 1986 Mordechai Vanunu revealed that Israel had enough nuclear material for 100 -150 nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear plant and either Israel or the U.S. or jointly are strongly suspected of sabotaging Iran's centrifuges with the Stuxnet virus. Neither Iraq nor Iran bombed any Israeli nuclear facilities, nor sabotaged by computer any Israeli nuclear processing. By all accounts known to me Iran does not yet have even one nuclear bomb. Israel also already has delivery platforms for nuclear weapons, fighters, missiles even nuclear submarines. FACTS of historical power realities. Israel forced Britain out with terrorist bombing and assassinations, and beat all Arab invaders in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. And it put down two intifadas with disproportionate casualties. The guerilla attacks of Hezbollah and Hamas, while painful, are not even close to stopping Israel’s policy of pushing Palestinians off land and settling Jews there. Americans must demand that irrational fear, or its pretense, not sabotage the possibility of an agreement with Iran. “Trust, but verify.” The U.S. needs to return to the policies of military disengagement [from the Middle East] and containment by proxy. Disengagement and Containment saved us from nuclear war with the Sino-Soviet bloc and communism eventually collapsed.
Mr. Cogan, I associate myself with your comments.
It's incredible that Zunes actually believes that all these Congress people gave all these standing ovations to Netanyahu because they are so stupid that they actually believe him despite his history of making similar false claims, rather than because of the power and influence of Adelson and AIPAC and the rest of the Lobby. Does Zunes also believe that those who gave Stalin rapturous ovations did so just because they really believed what Stalin was saying that emphatically?

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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