The pressure keeps mounting on Benjamin Netanyahu to arrange a face-saving means of cancelling his speech to both houses of Congress next month lest he create a rift between the U.S. and Israel. Almost every Zionist and Israel-supporter seems to agree about this, from Nancy Pelosi to Abraham Foxman to J Street to Michael Oren (It could hurt our efforts to act against Iran) to Shmuel Rosner (For Israel’s sake) to Tom Friedman (“Israel and its defenders are already under siege on college campuses across America”).
It feels inevitable that in a day or so, the Israeli government is going to announce some lame excuse or other — Sara Netanyahu’s bottle bill, a border incident, a new settlement project, a collapse of a party list in the election campaign, or a crisis over Netanyahu’s son’s dating habits — that will allow the prime minister to change the speaking gig.
Only Netanyahu himself seems determined to go forward.
And I agree with him. Dear Mr. Netanyahu, please don’t cancel your speech. This speech is too important to cancel. For three reasons:
1. The speech should go on because its historical amazement — the spectacle of a warmongering foreign leader rebuking the U.S. president on his foreign policy before a joint session of Congress — will catalyze an important political debate over the American people’s interest in the Middle East. The United States and Israel have a genuine difference over Iran policy. For a bunch of crazy reasons, but reasons all the same, Israelis describe the Iranian nuclear program as an “existential” threat. No American feels that to be true. And the more vigorous this debate, more Americans will get to talk about why Israel has nuclear weapons, whether its regional superpower rival can be contained (as the Soviet Union was contained within our memories, for many years), whether all American options really should be on the table. Americans have a right to reach the conclusion that Iran is not a big problem for us, and that we need to be friends with an advanced society of 75 million people, almost all Muslims. The Netanyahu speech, filled with fire and brimstone, will allow them to do so. In fact, so many Americans will conclude that there should be no military response to Iran’s nuclear program that they will enable Obama to reach a deal with Iran, and help to end the cold war between the U.S. and Iran that has helped to make the Middle East an east-west battleground.
2. The speech will drive a wedge between an important segment of the American power structure (progressive Democrats, led by Barack Obama) and Israel, at last. This is the real reason that people oppose the speech; it threatens the health and vigor of the Israel lobby by making Israel support a political football. These supporters don’t want any daylight between any part of the American power structure and Israel because Israel needs the U.S. more than anything and it must never be politicized. As Tom Friedman explains, “Israel needs the support of more than just Congress or one party.” J Street: “Israel… will always need support from across the American political spectrum to feel truly secure.” I.e., the president and Democratic liberals have to be in bed with Israel along with everyone else in Washington. But if the speech takes place, and the lobby loses the blind support of progressive Democrats, the American people will get to debate Israel policy and maybe even speak critically about all the stuff that Israel is doing, like massacring Palestinians in Gaza and building colonies on Palestinian land. Right now those issues are not discussed openly in the U.S. power structure and leading media. But if the speech happens and Obama/Biden turn their backs on Netanyahu, and so do a dozen or two Democrats– and the rightwing Israel groups then launch a shaming policy against those Democrats for alleged betrayal — progressives will then speak openly (on MSNBC and CNN) about why they boycotted the speech. That would change American politics. As Ari Fleischer says, wisely. “If they [Dems] boycott the speech, they’ll be casting their lot with the more liberal, not pro-Israel base of the party, and that would be a shocking development. It would be a radical break.” Exactly. That’s why several excellent groups have called on our politicians to “boycott” the speech.
3. The speech might allow a long-suppressed argument between neoconservatives (or Israel firsters, as MJ Rosenberg calls them) and our coalition of leftwing Palestinian solidarity activists and national interest types to take center stage in US politics. Think about it: the only people who want this speech to happen now are our side, the Palestinian solidarity types, and the hard-core neocons. Why? Because we both think we can win. We think we will do so by having our issue discussed by the American people, while the neocons are possessed by blind zeal; they think they will win in the same way that they manipulated the power structure before the Iraq war, by fearful politics, by blustering about WMD and the threat to the U.S. and the threat to political donations. I think the neocons have miscalculated out of hubris. This is a group led by Bill Kristol, who once bragged that he purged the “oldfashioned Arabists” from the Republican Party in the 1990s. Well the “Arabists” haven’t gone away. There are still millions of them in America, people who actually care about Palestinian human rights. The noble Kayla Mueller of Prescott Arizona who just died at the hands of ISIS was one of them.
If the speech goes forward, people will be openly debating Israel’s influence in our politics, and the absence of a voice for the other side. They will discuss whether the tail is wagging the dog, and why we are at war in the Middle East– or “how did we get into this mess” (as Tom Friedman puts it). They will get to talk about the three root causes of the conflict (Zionism, Palestinian resistance, inflexible U.S. support for Zionism).
The Netanyahu speech will be a great shock to the American system, and a healthy one: it will set off a long needed and long denied conversation.
So please Mr. Netanyahu, don’t cancel your speech.