Netanyahu’s Speech and the U.S. Congress
Prime Miniaster Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a combined session of the U.S. Congress yesterday was a thoroughly surreal experience. In the speech, Netanyahu pretended to be putting forth major concessions toward Palestine that could lead to the resumption of peace talks between the two parties, but the speech in fact was nothing more than standard Likud boiler plate that broke no new ground and was–as Netanyahu knew as he delivered it–totally unacceptable to the Palestinians (who promptly rejected it as “disappointing”). Everyone in the room or watching on television should have known that th speech was simply Bibi’s standard stump speech, but the U.S. Congress, interrupting him two dozen times with standing ovations, seemed to respond as if they were listening to a Churchillian oration. It was not, and the Congressional response was, in a word, unseemly.
Netanyau wasted no time demonstrating that he was not carrying an olive branch. Citing standard right-wing Israeli talking points, he reiterated that Judea and Samaria (J&S), as the Israelis like to refer to what the Arabs (and most of the rest of the world) refer to as the West Bank, was Israel’s, given to them by God in the Old Testament, and that the Israelis, despite this proper ownership, would be generous in making concession to carve out a Palestinian state somewhere on this piece of disputed ground that would include the abandonment of some of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank (oops, J&S). Those concession would not, however, include any part of Jerusalem, which he declared was the sole possession of Israel and its capital in perpetuity.
These two provisions alone gave away the seriousness of any peaceful intent that Netanyahu brought to the forum. Haaretz, the Israeli paper that opposes the Netanyahu regime across the board, referred to the speech as the “same old messages” that included endless conditions that have no relation to reality.” If reality entails meaningful concessions that will reactivate the peace process, their assessment is exactly correct, since the Netanyahu conditions leave very little territory to be negotiated as the basis of Palestine and set the context that any concessions will be the result of Israeli largesse. The speech effectively slammed the door not only on President Obama’s proposals of last week; they effectively end any prospects of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for as long as Netanyahu is in office. Haaretz concludes that Netanyahu “is leading Israel and the Palestinians into a new round of violence, along with Israel’s isolation and deep disagreement with the American administration.” I find it hard to argue with that conclusion.
Then there was the Congressional response. The assembled Senators and Representatives hung on and cheered every hard-line word that Netanyahu spoke, and one can assums that there will be lots of Israeli TV commercials documenting that support when the next Israeli election is held. Did they know what they were cheering? Does the United States Congress reject the idea of meaningful dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, which is the inevitable result of Netanyahu’s speech? Or were the collected members, ever vigilant to instant polls, election prospects in 2012 and how full their reelection coffers would be, simply pandering to what they assume was American opinion on this subject?
It is incoceivable to me that the 500+ rpresentatives and others in attendance did not recognize Netanyahu’s speech for what it was: a basic, if nicely presented, reiteration of the standard right-wing, pro-settler Israeli position that broke no new ground and was not intended to be a diplomatic outreach but a simple statement of political position. Recognizing that politics no longer ends at the water’s edge, the speech was also a condemnation of the position of the government of the United States, and like that position or not, those Congressional “spring butts” (a term I learned at the US Aifr Force Command and Staff College as the reflexive response of some officer “brown nosers”) were cheering against their own government. Where was the “America, Love It or Leave It” crowd on that part). If you are a Palestinian today, you can only conclude, rightly or wrongly, that the Congress of the United States is your enemy. Is that what the members sought to convey?
Those who support the Netanyahu position, both here and in Israel, will no doubt respond negatively to these words. That is fine: the heart of dialogue is accepting contrary views and working from them. Having said that, I find it shocking, and yes, surreal, that this event occurred the way it did. To put it simply, a foreign official was invited to speak to the legislative branch of another country, where he berated and openly opposed the foreign policy of his closest ally to the cheers of that legislative body. Simply unbelievable!