After weeks of buildup, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally delivered his long-planned speech to a joint meeting of Congress, attacking President Obama’s deal with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. Asserting that the agreement would only empower Iran to become nuclear armed, and painting the regime as a murderous cabal set on wiping Israel from the face of the earth, the speech fit neatly with the basic gist of Netanyahu’s public pronouncements over the previous 20 or so years.
The speech was the subject of a firestorm of controversy from the very moment it was announced. In total, more than 50 Democratic Congressmen and women ended up boycotting the speech, while National Security Adviser Susan Rice told Charlie Rose it was "destructive of the fabric of the relationship" between the US and Israel. Meanwhile, as reported by Al Jazeera, a number of former and current military officers earlier suggested that Netanyahu’s decision to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to Congress had infuriated the US military, which was beginning to view Israel as a strategic liability.
It is interesting that this is what seems to have soured the normally subservient US political establishment on Israel and Netanyahu. After all, it could easily be argued that Israel was a strategic liability for the US long before this. Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid since World War II, receiving billions of dollars military assistance a year over the last ten years, and many more billions over the decades prior. What does the US get in return for this assistance? For one, it’s dragged into supporting any and every war fought (and started) by Israel, including its last three wars in Gaza, which killed a total of more than 3,500 Palestinians, the vast majority of which were civilians, or its adventure in Lebanon which left more than 1000 Lebanese dead. The casualty figures don’t quite capture the brutality of conflicts, which also involved the maiming and large-scale displacement of civilians, the destruction of homes, and the evisceration of essential infrastructure like health care facilities and running water.
The US-Israeli relationship also leads the former to reflexively back the latter in every crime it commits, whether that means sidingagainst its own citizens when they are killed by Israeli forces, or relentlessly wielding its veto in the UN to shield Israel from any accountability and advance its interests. These actions make the US heavily complicit, to say the least, in perpetuating violence that goes against its own professed aims of peace and justice, along with undercutting its commitment to human rights. At the same time that the US commits itself to unceasingly shielding Israel on the world stage, Israeli Prime Minister after Israeli Prime Minister continues to encourage illegal settlement in the contested occupied territories over the objections of the US government, reducing the chances of a peaceful, two-state solution.
In the process of giving Israel its moral and material support, the US isolates itself from the rest of the international community, eroding its moral authority and ravaging its standing in the Muslim world. The US’ automatic backing of Israel is frequentlycited as a cause of resentment among Arabs and Muslims around the world, and is explicitly cited by terrorists (including Osama bin Laden) as a motivating factor behind their actions.
As for Netanyahu, this is a politician who has used his influence to continually push for more and more war in the Middle East – wars that would, of course, be primarily fought and paid for by the US. Along with using the unrelated murder of three Israeli teenagers as a pretext to bomb Gaza into the ground last year, in 2002 Netanyahu backed the Bush administration’s plan to wage war on Iraq, asserting: "If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region." In addition to this, Netanyahu has been using his political platform to urge for war against Iran since at least 1992, including in a UN speech in 2012, where he cynically claimed Iran might only be a few months away from producing a nuclear bomb, despite Israeli intelligence at the time flatly contradicting that. To get a sense of how little respect Netanyahu accords the US political figures who continue to defend and support him – not to mention consider him a friend – one need only listen to his assurances to Israeli settlers about how he would undermine the Oslo Accords in a recording taken in 2001: "I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction."
If all this couldn’t prompt US lawmakers and military leaders to reconsider their unquestioning support of Israel, then what is it about this speech that has made them lose patience, albeit to an extremely limited extent? A reawakened concern with human rights, perhaps? Or maybe revulsion at the fact that Netanyahu was once again attempting to draw the US into a disastrous war in the Middle East? None of those things, it turns out.
A number of the 56 Democrats who skipped the speech viewed it as an unacceptable piece of partisanship. Rep. John Conyers, Jr. cited his belief that it was about "advancing a narrow political agenda", while Rep. Rosa DeLauro saw it as a "partisan invitation" that’s "part of Speaker Boehner’s partisan game plan". Senator Al Franken lamented that the speech had "become a partisan spectacle", while Patrick Leahy charged that "House leaders" had "heavy politicized it."
Many others complained that the speech was an attack on the President, both the man and the office. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman bemoaned "Speaker Boehner’s efforts to drag [Netanyahu] into the GOP’s endless efforts to undermine President Obama", while Rep. Cedric Richmond believed it was "undermining the President." Rep. Chaka Fattah, meanwhile, assured his constituents that he "would never participate in any activity to disparage the President of the United States."
The military officers quoted by Al Jazeera show a similar mindset. Says one anonymous source:
"This caps it. It’s one thing for Americans to criticise their president and another entirely for a foreign leader to do it…We’re not going to side with him against the commander in chief."
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard expanded on this:
"It’s not just that Netanyahu is showing disrespect for Mr. Obama. It’s that he’s disrespecting US institutions…it’s another thing to show disrespect for America. That just can’t be tolerated."
In other words, as long as Israel is bombing UN shelters, carrying out assassinations and purposefully undermining the Middle East peace process, it will continue to receive the steadfast support of the US. But as soon as it gets involved in a partisan squabble or appears to be spitting in the face of the President or hallowed American institutions, it has crossed a line. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that Washington and the political establishment run on partisanship and fealty to the executive branch. But it does show how little has changed since the previous decade, when criticism of foreign policy seemingly continues to be only permitted when narrowly rooted in unblinking loyalty to the President.
US policymakers and military officials are right to reject the warmongering of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and question the value of the exceptional Israeli-American partnership. Unfortunately, in this case, they appear to be doing so for the wrong reasons.
Branko Marcetic is a writer who completed his Masters thesis in history in 2014 at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, looking at the formation of early libertarianism in 1950’s America.