This speech wasn’t Bibi Netanyahu’s fault. It was Speaker John Boehner’s idea to set up the Israeli prime minister’s address to Congress in retaliation for President Obama’s refusing to strengthen sanctions on Iran. If anything, Netanyahu’s visit says more about the dysfunction of our own government, where Boehner is not above using even his speech scheduling powers to troll the president, than it does about Israel.
But it will be Netanyahu who suffers after being used as a pawn in the idiotic battle of American optics. I, for one, think it’s about time. With his long-awaited speech on Tuesday, Netanyahu exposed the gap between the reactionary politics of Israel and the United States’ long-term interests in the Middle East. With any luck, American support for Israel will reframe into a partisan issue, opening up the door for a moment of real reckoning on why our government unconditionally supports an oppressive country that has the gall to oppose our peacemaking process.
Until recently, Israel was one of the last issues upon which every notable American politician agreed. Premised on a distended definition of what constitutes an existential threat, Israel had carte blanche to do whatever it wanted from its American sponsor, including massacring its territory’s native refugees when the mood struck and maintaining an apartheid state the rest of the time.
But pro-Israel sentiments have been shifting rightward for a while, probably informed most by progressives’ distaste for Israel’s installment-plan genocide of Palestine and conservatives’ affinity for belligerence. Between Netanyahu’s open support for Republican politicians and the emergence of Sheldon Adelson, left-leaning pro-Israel groups like J-Street have looked out of place for some time. Now, the secret is out. Netanyahu is a Republican, and support for him and his country in the U.S. might end up that way too.
There’s nothing inherently conservative about Zionism or national defense, but there is something very Republican about a leader presenting the U.S. Congress knowingly fabricated evidence with the goal of keeping U.N. inspectors from verifying a primitive regime’s weapons incapacity. Tuesday’s speech was an ugly echo of George W. Bush’s allegation, from that same podium, that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Niger. Netanyahu is cut from the same cloth. Last week it came out that, like Bush’s famous sixteen words, Netanyahu’s 2012 claim about the imminence of Iran’s nuclear threat was unfounded by his country’s intelligence. That didn’t stop him from holding up a Wile E. Coyote bomb at the United Nations and scaring everybody shitless, though, because scared shitless is what Bibi’s about.
In order to terrify us about the dangers of making an extremely provisional peace with Iran, Netanyahu attempted to recast the entire nation as a shrewd yet totally irrational suicide bomber. Only a few breaths removed from bemoaning anti-Semitism, Netanyahu tried to use Americans’ ignorance about Muslims to conflate Iran with their ideological and military enemy ISIS. “Don't be fooled…. Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world.” Which is logic along the lines of saying that al Qaeda and Al Sharpton are joining forces any day now, linked by their names and their histories of criticizing U.S. policy. They’ll call it the Al-iphate.
Netanyahu proceeded to throw a lot of other spaghetti against the wall in order to spook us about the same Iranian government that has been working with our diplomats for months and coordinating military efforts with us in Iraq. In his rendering, Iran is both a puppetmaster that is “gobbling up the nations” and a lunatic willing to launch a “nuclear arsenal to the far-reach corners of the earth, including to every part of the United States.” It would ensure their destruction to try anything remotely close to that, but they’re just crazy enough to do it! That is supposing that they’ve achieved even a single bomb, of course, let alone a nuclear arsenal.
Who honestly believes this shit? This is the kind of paranoia you hear from concealed-carry zealots. Iran is a modern country sat upon by a bad regime that is possibly not long for this world. They have an economy that has crippled under the strain of sanctions to the point that they reached out to us in order to arrange a nuclear deal. Yes, Iran’s government is repressive. Israel, meanwhile, is consistently one of the planet’s most outrageous flouters of international law. It torments and murders the people who used to live on the land that it commandeered, and under Netanyahu it has all but abandoned the two-state solution that has long been the glimmer of hope in the whole situation. Iran’s Supreme Leader may be a primitive theocrat, but Israel’s statehood isn’t much better, premised on biblical prophecy as it is.
Iran has been an enemy of the West in recent decades not because they’re medieval and backwards, like ISIS, but because they’ve exerted enough hegemony to make the Middle East’s ‘proper’ stewards—the West—nervous. Netanyahu touched on this insecurity on Tuesday, but didn’t offer a logic for why such a savvy operator would choose to self-immolate by violating a deal and breaking towards a bomb. This is not a country beyond the reach of negotiation. Far from it. If anyone is being irrational, it’s Netanyahu.
Maybe that’s why Mossad has openly broken ranks with him and advised American legislators against interfering in Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations with Iran. Just as they did when they defied an order of Netanyahu’s to prepare for an attack on Iran in 2010, Mossad may be of the mind that Iran’s nuclear aspirations are best contained with “intrusive inspections,” as Kerry put it, and rapprochement from the rest of the world than with more sanctions.
I also don’t think that a nuclear Iran is what Netanyahu truly fears in the short term. He’s likely more afraid of the U.S. getting in bed with Israel's chief rival, to any degree. Though the chances of Iran usurping Israel’s primacy in Washington are zero, with a friend like Iran, the U.S. could be a little more reluctant to support Israel at all costs. Notwithstanding Netanyahu’s eschatological dramatics, a more mundane but very real risk is that we might stop shielding Israel so resolutely in the U.N. All it takes is one Security Council vote to waver, and suddenly there’s an bona fide international consensus about the need for Palestinian statehood. Suddenly it might not be OK to mow the lawn so brazenly. Suddenly, $3.1 billion a year in aid starts to look like a savings opportunity during the next fiscal crisis.
The prime minister’s concern is understandable, but that doesn’t mean we have to care about it. We are the real puppetmaster here, like it or not, and in this situation we seem to have the leverage and political will to make diplomacy work. The last thing that the U.S. needs, after a decade of trying to solve the Iranian question, is one faction of Israeli politics jumping in the ring and screwing things up.
Luckily, it looks like they’re protesting too much. Not only will Obama not heed Netanyahu’s ravings, but he’ll let him paint Israel into one specific corner of the American political spectrum—elite, anti-populist neoconservatism—and thereby clear the obligation to listen to Israel on everything we do in the region. None of this is to say that another Middle Eastern government will steal Jerusalem's hold on Washington. But before they complain about every effort we make to keep their rival contained without going to war, they need to know their place. “Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand!” Netanyahu said on Tuesday. Please, be our guests. But it’s a little ungrateful to castigate the U.S., who has no interest in fighting Iran, when we find alternatives to Israel having to “stand” at all.
Most of all, Americans, Israelis, and Iranians will benefit if the rhetoric tones down a little. Netanyahu’s political proclivities are no reason to drag his country and ours away from a potentially sustainable arrangement in the region. Fortunately for the world, that’s not his job. It’s ours. And we’re making good on it.
In 1996, President Clinton met a newly-elected Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time and came away from the meeting cursing at his gall, “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” The answer, then as now, is the United States. We decide who’s at peace and who’s at war. In moments like these, when we’re working towards the former, we don’t need short-term and political concerns derailing that. Netanyahu will have to either live with it or get comfy on the side of the American political spectrum that has made a business out of criticizing Obama without offering alternatives. The U.S.’s interest in the Middle East has long been distinct from the agenda of Netanyahu’s far-right Likud party, but they’ve never seemed further apart than now.