There are three things, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note at the beginning of this: I’m a Brooklyn Jew. I’m a contributor to J-Street because I think they represent the sanest position on Middle East issues of any American organization engaged with these issues. And I’ve been writing about Alan Dershowitz for years, and he about me—mostly in the New York Times and Counterpunch. These exchanges have been about our different positions on Israel and on ethical, political and torture issues. You can see some of this here and here.
There has been a huge PR war going on about this week’s speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, before the US Congress. The speech was arranged by House Speaker John Boehner and Ron Dermer, an American who worked for New Gingrich on the Contract with America and who arranged Mitt Romney’s Jerusalem trip in 2012, when Romney was cozying up to American Jews during his failed run for the presidency.
Dermer moved to Israel, became a political operative there, and is probably the person closest to Netanyahu. When he became an official in the Israeli government, he took up Israeli citizenship. He has been Israel’s Ambassador to the US since September 2013. In a 2002 column in the Jerusalem Post, Dermer said Israeli doves were “the self-haters and the census takers.” According to Haaretz, “Last year, he spoke alongside Dick Cheney, Chris Christie and Scott Walker at a Republican Jewish Coalition event hosted by Sheldon Adelson” (February 4, 2015).
This visit by Netanyahu is entirely political. Not “political” in the good sense—we work together to get things done—but rather in the cynical sense—we work together to advance our own positions. Boehner is on record as saying he would do anything to make the Obama administration fail at anything it tries. Netanyahu is in a tight election at home.
This trip increases Bibi’s attractiveness to the right-wing coalition his Likud party needs to stay in power. And it advances his determination to scuttle the negotiations now going on between Iran, the US, and several other countries. He would much prefer that the negotiations fail and that we opt for a military solution instead. The Republicans in Congress are very close to Netanyahu and Likud, far closer than they are to any of the non-militant parties in Israel. So this visit serves Boehner’s mission of screwing Obama and Netanyahu’s purpose of scuttling successful negotiations with Iran and propping up his own election campaign.
It does not serve the long- or short-term political interests of either the US or Israel, but that is of no concern to Bibi or Boehner. It’s all about personal ambition, and money.
There has been a huge PR campaign around this visit. I’m writing this on Sunday, March 1. On Monday, Netanyahu was scheduled to speak at the AIPAC conference, along with Eric Cantor, Barney Frank, William Kristol (editor of The Weekly Standard, who tweeted that it wouldn’t be amiss if everybody walked out when members of the Obama administration spoke), Ralph Reed (founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition), David Sigel (consul general of Israel, LA), and many others.
They are pulling out the big guns to lean on Congress to block Obama’s negotiations with Iran and to promote the Tuesday performance by Netanyahu before the Republican Congress.
The Times of Israel reported as news a full-age ad in which “Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel announced his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Congressional address in March on Iran’s nuclear program, and said he plans to attend the event.”
The one thing nobody is talking about is the worst-kept secret in the Middle East: There is only one nuclear power in the entire region: Israel. It has been one since 1966.
Netanyahu and Posner
Netanyahu was popular in America when he was Israeli representative to the UN (1984-1988) for exactly the same reason Americans liked Soviet spokesman Vladimir Posner. They both spoke perfect American English, Posner with a Manhattan accent and Netanyahu with a Philadelphia mainline accent. Americans, who speak fewer other languages than almost anyone else, tend to like foreigners who talk pretty much the way they do. The content recedes. We forgot who Posner was mouthpiece for; we didn’t notice what a dedicated militarist Netanyahu always was.
Posner grew up in the US and attended Stuyvesant High School, a few years ahead of me. During the 1970s and 1980s, we were still in a Cold War with the evil Commie empire, but he was a frequent guest on American TV shows such as Ted Koppel’s Nightline and The Phil Donahue Show. For three years, he and Donahue did a TV show together. They spoke the same language.
Posner was never in the military, but Netanyahu grew up in it. He fought in the Six-Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and several Special Forces actions in between.
He is only the second person to be elected Israeli prime minister for a third term (the other was David Ben-Gurion), mainly because of his willingness to ally the Likud Party with right-wing parties. He was born and spent most of his life in Israel, but in his high school years, his family lived in a Philadelphia suburb. He got an architecture degree from MIT in 1975 and a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 1977. While at Sloan he took political science courses at Harvard. During that time in the US, he used the name “Ben Nitai.” His older brother, Yonatan, was commander of, and was killed in, the rescue raid on Entebbe in 1976. He worked for a while in a firm with Mitt Romney, and when he ran for prime minister in 1996, he hired American Republican political operative Arthur Finkelstein to run his campaign.
I remember him well during the years he was at the UN. I, as many of my friends, took him as a moderate, a man seeking a solution. We were misled by the language. We should have been looking at his military record, not his vowels. His game was hardball, not negotiation.
This week’s political game
The Obama administration did everything it could to keep Netanyahu from doing a performance before Congress this week. The administration is trying to negotiate with Iran; Netanyahu is trying to blow those negotiations up; the Republicans want to screw Obama however they can.
None of this is new. We’ve seen the Republicans working to kill everything coming out of the White House for the past six years. Obama and Netanyahu have disagreed about new settlements and a two-state solution since Obama took office.
The only thing that’s new is the ferocity of the PR, and the openness with which Boehner and Netanyahu are willing to blow off the White House and the State Department on a major issue of foreign policy. Traditionally in American government, foreign policy is managed by the Executive (which is why we have State Department) and approved or not by the Congress (checks and balances). What’s going on this time is an end-run around the White House: Netanyahu can’t manipulate Obama, and Boehner wants (in his own words) to block him “tooth and nail.” In addition to that, the Republicans in Congress are very close to the Likud Party in Israel, probably closer than they are to the Democrats or the White House.
It is what has now become a cliché: Those guys can use this perfect political storm to serve their own purposes while ignoring the needs, values and desires of the countries they presume to serve.
Using the press
On Feb 26 the organization J-Street (two-state, stop settlements, seek peace, negotiate settlements) had a full-page ad in the front section of the New York Times: a photo of Bibi with the US Capitol behind him. The first part of the text said, “Prime Minister Netanyahu: Congress isn’t a prop for your election campaign.” It went on to say, “The last time you addressed the U.S. Congress you turned the speech into a campaign ad. The presidents of Israel and the United States, Five of Israel’s former ambassadors to the United States, Dozens of American Elected Officials and major American Jewish leaders all said: Postpone the speech.”
Two days later, a Zionist organization based in Englewood, New Jersey, This World: The Values Network (which seems wholly to me like an AIPAC front, but I haven’t found a link), published a full-page response, almost all text. At the top in big type, “Susan Rice has a blind spot: Genocide.” Below that is a photo of a lot of skulls in boxes, to the right of which is a photo of US National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
Today, Sunday, there is another full-page ad in the Times, this one from the Republican Jewish Coalition. Most of the top half of the page is black, with three photographs, three one-liners (all in caps), and three names (in upper- and lower-case):
“DEATH TO AMERICA” —Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini
ISRAEL MUST BE “WIPED OUT”—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
ISRAEL SHOULD BE “ANNIHILATED”—Ayatollah Ali Khameni
The first two lines of the text are “NUCLEAR IRAN IS UNTHINKABLE. THE TIME FOR DEBATE IS NOW, NOT AFTER IRAN GETS NUCLEAR WEAPONS.”
The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition is Howard Kohr, who previously worked for AIPAC. AIPAC is Israel’s premier lobbying organization in the US: It engages in political campaigns and goes after people it thinks are saying bad things about Israel. It has been hugely influential in American politics over the past 30 years, much like the NRA.
Full-page ads in the front section of the New York Times cost about $150,000. Full-page ads in the Sunday edition cost considerably more.
(There is a superb article about AIPAC by Connie Buck in the September 1, 2014 New Yorker: “Friends of Israel: The lobbying group AIPAC has consistently fought the Obama Administration on policy. Is it now losing influence?” )
I pretty much expect AIPAC and to endorse anything the Israeli prime minister tells it to do, and This World and the Republican Jewish Coalition to do the same. It is not a surprise that Elie Wiesel’s letter on This World’s website was immediately disseminated by AIPAC on its website. Elie Wiesel has had one message for 40 years, and so has AIPAC.
What did surprise me in this noise attacking the White House’s attempt to move toward a normalized relationship with Iran (every major treaty is a major move) was former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s screed in the February 23 Wall Street Journal defending the diplomacy runaround by the Republicans in Congress and Netanyahu.
In the past, Dershowitz has been a constant defender of anything Israel and a supporter of torture as an interrogation technique, but in this article he describes himself “as a liberal Democrat who twice campaigned for President Barack Obama.”
Then he immediately sides with the Republicans in Congress and Netanyahu’s Likud coalition, which wants to blow up the current US negotiations with Iran: “I am appalled that some Democratic members of Congress are planning to boycott the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 3 to a joint session of Congress,” he writes. “At bottom, this controversy is not mainly about protocol and politics—it is about the constitutional system of checks and balances and the separation of powers.”
That is total nonsense. Netanyahu isn’t here to maintain our checks and balances. He is here to do what he can to wreck the potential nuclear containment treaty with Iran and to pump up his own political standing back home and to help Boehner screw Obama.
“Under the Constitution,” Dershowitz writes, “the executive and legislative branches share responsibility for making and implementing important foreign-policy decisions. Congress has a critical role to play in scrutinizing the decisions of the president when these decisions involve national security, relationships with allies and the threat of nuclear proliferation.”
All true, but it is just pettifoggery. No decisions have been made yet. The negotiations are still going on. Should the White House and State Department come up with a potential treaty, the text will go before Congress. Dershowitz is a Constitutional lawyer. He knows that.
He goes on to write, “Congress has every right to invite, even over the president’s strong objection, any world leader or international expert who can assist its members in formulating appropriate responses to the current deal being considered with Iran regarding its nuclear-weapons program. Indeed, it is the responsibility of every member of Congress to listen to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who probably knows more about this issue than any world leader, because it threatens the very existence of the nation state of the Jewish people.”
Congress can, if it wishes, invite ballet dancers, basso profundos, and NFL quarterbacks. It can come to work bare-ass naked. But it is not good politics to provide a bully pulpit to a prime minister of a nation opposed to US policy, a nation that spends a huge amount of money influencing US policy, a prime minister who will surely use this presentation in his election campaign at home (as he did last time). And what evidence is there that Netanyahu knows more about this than Obama?
“The idea,” Dershowitz writes, “that some members of Congress will not give him the courtesy of listening violates protocol and basic decency to a far greater extent than anything Mr. Netanyahu is accused of doing for having accepted an invitation from Congress.”
Why? Where does this come from? Netanyahu has for years told us he’d curtail the expansion of the settlements. He always lied. He expanded the settlements, hugely. All the settlements were places where Arabs were pushed out of their homes so new settlers could have nice houses and swimming pools. In the past two months Netanyahu urged the Jews of France, then of the world, to move to Israel. Should those people come, whose space will they occupy?
“One should walk out on tyrants, bigots and radical extremists,” Dershowitz writes, “as the United States did when Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust and called for Israel’s destruction at the United Nations. To use such an extreme tactic against our closest ally, and the Middle East’s only vibrant democracy, is not only to insult Israel’s prime minister but to put Israel in a category in which it does not belong.
So let members of Congress who disagree with the prime minister’s decision to accept Speaker Boehner’s invitation express that disagreement privately and even publicly, but let them not walk out on a speech from which they may learn a great deal and which may help them prevent the president from making a disastrous foreign-policy mistake. Inviting a prime minister of an ally to educate Congress about a pressing foreign-policy decision is in the highest tradition of our democratic system of separation of powers and checks and balances.”
More nonsense and pettifoggery. This is not a law school seminar in which members of Congress “may learn a great deal.” They could “learn” what Netanyahu has to say in a memo. It is a political event, in which a Republican Congress is trying to screw a Democrat president one more time, and a foreign politician is trying to use prime-time American TV to bolster his ratings at home and scuttle a potential peace move that will make his militant stand less tenable.
And, finally, it is a cruel lie that Israel is “the Middle East’s only vibrant democracy.” It’s only a democracy if you’re a Jew. If you’re a Palestinian it is an apartheid state. It is the bombing of schools and hospitals in Gaza. It is the water the settlements get that your village does not get. It is the apartheid wall. It is the schools their kids get into that yours do not.
That’s not a democracy. Netanyahu’s visit is not a civics lesson. If Dershowitz can’t see that, it was indeed time for him to retire. Or he’s part of the AIPAC machinery which, now, does Israel no more good than it does us, and should be retired as well.
(I am writing this, as I said earlier, two days before Netanyahu’s Congressional performance. This article will be published online the day of that performance and in print the day after. I very much doubt that anything happening between this Sunday afternoon and next Wednesday morning will surprise me, or change anything I’ve written here. It’s just a matter of verb tense.
I depended on Wikipedia, and to a lesser extent The New York Times online and The New Yorker for much of the biographical information and major dates.)
Bruce Jackson has written on social and political issues for The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, New Republic, Counterpunch and other periodicals. He is the author or editor of 33 books. In 2002, the French government appointed him Chevalier in the Ordre national des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2012, the president of France appointed him Chevalier in the Ordre national du Mérite. He teaches at UB.