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Netanyahu speech: A dilemma for U.S. Jews — not for Israelis

For the first time, American Jews are getting the feeling that they might have to choose between Israel, and their loyalty to the country in which they were born and have become successful to a degree almost unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people.

In remarks that shook American Jewish leaders with their bluntness, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on Tuesday that Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress on March 3 was “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the United States and Israel. Rice was speaking to Charlie Rose on his PBS news magazine show Tuesday evening; her interlocutor was so taken aback by her comment that he repeated it back to her in a tone of astonishment, pausing between each word.

Speaker Boehner holds a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Congressional leaders following his address to a joint meeting of Congress. May 24, 2011. (Speaker Boehner / CC-BY NY 2.0)

Speaker Boehner holds a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Congressional leaders following his address to a joint meeting of Congress. May 24, 2011. (Speaker Boehner / CC-BY NY 2.0)

Rice responded by pointing out that until Netanyahu accepted Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress, the relationship between Israel and the United States had “…always been bipartisan and we have been fortunate that the politics have not been injected into this relationship.” Speaking emphatically, she said:

“What has happened over the last several weeks by virtue of the invitation that was issued by the speaker and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks before his elections is that on both sides there have been injected some degree of partisanship.

“It is not only unfortunate but it is also destructive of the fabric of the relationship. It has always been bipartisan and we want to keep it that way. When it becomes injected with politics that’s a problem. We want the relationship to be strong regardless of which party may be in charge in each country.”

Rice made her remarks on the same day that Netanyahu rejected an invitation from Democratic senators for a closed-door session, presumably so that he could express his concerns about the Obama administration’s Iran policy, rather than deliver a divisive address to Congress.

John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, invited Netanyahu to address Congress regarding U.S. policy toward Iran. Boehner supports a bill that calls for new sanctions against Iran, while the Obama administration is deeply involved in the delicate multilateral talks with Iran that are known as P5+1, which face a crucial deadline at the end of March. Last year the U.S. and its European negotiating partners lifted some sanctions on Iran as a confidence-building measure. In exchange, Iran suspended part of its nuclear development program; President Obama has said that he would veto a bill for new sanctions.

The dilemma of American Jews

Over the past few weeks, since Netanyahu accepted Boehner’s invitation, the White House has expressed its anger with one snub after another. First Obama said he would not meet with Netanyahu during his visit to DC, which coincides with the annual AIPAC conference (Netanyahu will speak at AIPAC as well). The official reason: given that the Israeli election is to take place only two weeks later, it would be inappropriate for Obama to meet with the incumbent candidate. Secretary of State Kerry announced that he would be abroad during Netanyahu’s visit, and spokespeople for Joe Biden said the vice president would also be out of town that week.

The administration also leaked that it had stopped giving Israeli officials full briefings on the ongoing talks with Iran. And on top of that, 26 Democrats — 23 from the House and three senators — have announced that they will not attend Netanyahu’s speech. The overt insult to the president (and the institution of the presidency) by a supposedly loyal ally was too much to overlook, even in the name of supporting the special friendship with their most important ally in the Middle East. But note that even the Democrats who said they will not attend Netanyahu’s speech have hastened to emphasize the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, pointedly eschewing the term “boycott.”

Nonetheless, American Jewish leaders are worried. The mainstream Jewish community votes Democrat and is unequivocally supportive of Israel, which means that it ends up being liberal on pretty much every issue except Israel. Until now, it was easy to live with this cognitive dissonance, since the U.S. position on Israel was unswervingly supportive. For the first time, American Jews are getting the feeling that they might have to choose between Israel as their identity totem, and their loyalty to the country in which they were born and have become successful to a degree almost unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people.

But while the New York Times put its report about Rice’s remarks on its homepage, and while Jewish American journalists who write frequently about Israel expressed shock and dismay at Netanyahu’s refusal to accept the Democrats’ invitation for a closed-door meeting, the Israeli response has been quite different. As of this writing, nearly one day after Rice’s remarks were broadcast, tweeted and widely reported in the U.S., none of the Hebrew media outlets have put their report about her conversation with Charlie Rose on their homepage. Rice’s blunt comments led the news for a few hours in the morning, but then were quickly knocked off the top of the news hour by the much-anticipated release of the state comptroller’s housing report, in which Netanyahu is accused of exacerbating the country’s catastrophic housing crisis. It was the housing crisis that precipitated weeks of protests in the summer of 2011, and economic issues continue to be the leading concern for Israeli voters.

One standing ovation after another

Many Israeli commentators have been deeply critical of Netanyahu’s having insulted the Obama administration by accepting Boehner’s invitation. But Netanyahu’s core voters are like the people in the United States who base their worldview on Fox News: they are deeply suspicious of the “liberal” mainstream media, and their loyalty to the Likud party is as unswerving as their support for their favorite soccer team. It is part of their identity. Netanyahu is betting that with the support of his core voters he will win enough seats and have sufficient allies on the right to form the next governing coalition.

According to the polls, Likud and the Zionist Union, headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, are virtually tied. But while Netanyahu campaigns on security and the Zionist Union campaigns on the economy, the fact is that the Herzog-Livni team have not tried to challenge Netanyahu on his Iran policy. That is because it’s too risky a move. They might be able to mock his hawkishness in their most recent campaign clip, by making a cynical joke about “going to war every two years,” but Herzog and Livni supported every Israeli military campaign against Gaza since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

The center-left objects to Netanyahu’s crass, combative style, but they don’t really object to the substance of his message. They might agree with Israel’s Intelligence establishment, which continues to insist that Iran does not present an existential threat to Israel, but they know it would be unwise to test populist sentiment by expressing that view in the political arena. The economy might be the number one issue that drives people to the streets, but if there is a war, those protestors will without question go home, put on their uniforms and report to their reserve units. Security trumps all concerns in Israel, by default.

Given what I have heard so far on Israeli radio programs, I suspect that Netanyahu’s spokespeople will frame Susan Rice’s remarks as an example of the Obama administration’s callous disregard for Israel’s security. They will push the idea that Rice has put weapons in the hands of the enemies of Israel, who will have taken note that there is a rift with its American protector. This kind of interpretation plays very well in Israel, and it could find a ready audience among Jewish Americans as well. Israelis do care deeply about having a good relationship with the United States — just not at the expense of their security, which they naturally believe only they truly understand and care about. And for some (perhaps many), it hasn’t quite sunk in that without America’s friendship, they are not secure.

As for Netanyahu, it seems that he cares only about being re-elected. If his concern were, as he continues to insist, protecting Israel from an Iranian threat, then surely an opportunity to make a serious presentation to senior American legislators would be the most effective means of conveying his position. But what Netanyahu really wants is prime time television coverage in Israel that shows him speaking in perfect English to members of the American Congress as they give him one standing ovation after another. And if he can’t have that, then he’ll take the second-best option — the sight of empty seats belonging to Democrats who chose loyalty to Obama over concern for Israel’s security.

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    1. American

      ” For the first time, American Jews are getting the feeling that they might have to choose between Israel as their identity totem, and their loyalty to the country in which they were born have become successful to a degree almost unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people.”

      I predicted 12 years ago this ‘choice showdown’ would come.
      I am not Jewish, just plain American and have no emotional feelings for Israel one way or another.
      And some jew don’t want to hear any non jewish americans opinions on anything to do with Israel.
      But the most striking thing in Israel & US & Jewish Pro Israel organizations & the Jewish history story underpinning it all is the old ‘nation within a nation’ question has risen again.
      I can’t believe the Jews didn’t see this coming.

      There are no ‘exceptions’ to loyalty to one’s county, not because of victimhood or holocaust or any other perceived entitlement, never has been, its been a delusion. Thats just a fact, whether that country happened to be in the right or in the wrong at any given time, it has never worked in the history of any nations, the world or mankind, a fifth column of loyalty is a stick of dynamite in a nation.

      People have to make choices and we are all responsible for our own choices and most times even held responsible for our country’s choices and actions.

      I told a jewish friend 12 years ago that US interest and Israels are not the same and the two countries are not the same and the day would come when Israel pushed the Us to the point where Jews had to chose–he said that would never happen. And he still wants to believe this Netanyahu slap at Americans is just a flap between two leaders who dont like each other.
      It isnt. The politicians might want to portray it that way also to hold onto pro Israel donors. But the public sees it for what it is. Its about the US interest and desire of the majority of Americans to avoid wars and control their own national policy for their own common good, not have US policy that affects ALL americans dictated by any special minority group or foreign country interest.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Some American Jews may feel torn in supporting the survival of the Jewish state of Israel, but Israelis do not. The Jews of Israel oppose becoming sacrificial lambs like the people of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Were the British and Americans torn in their support for the Munich Pact instead of the people of Czechoslovakia?

        Proximity might have something to do with some Americans” and American Jews” dilemma. America and American Jews are not on the front lines of a conflict which seeks to consume them. There are not a hundred thousand missiles from Iran and Hezbollah pointed at American cities and nuclear power plants. Hezbollah and Iranian soldiers and generals are not on American borders. Nor do Americans have to fear Iranian support of terrorists in Canada or Mexico for attacks on Americans. Bus loads of children on the way to school and adults on the way to work or home, were not blown up by terrorists funded by Iranian money.

        I almost forgot to mention that Iran has threatened to annihilate Israel and has been pursuing both a nuclear weapon and missile technology for the delivery of such a weapon against Israel.

        If anyone is interested in considering an Israeli’s consideration of the matter, I suggest you might want to read David Horovitz’s article in the Times of Israel entitled “We know who to believe on Iran”.


        Reply to Comment
        • Bryan

          Simply no comparison with Czechoslovakia in 1938, Pedro. German annexation of the Sudetenland was of areas with an overwhelmingly German-speaking and culturally German population, and was backed by the might of the Wehrmacht, at a time when Britain and America were both disengaged from Foreign Policy adventures and had absolutely no capability to intervene in distant lands. The ongoing Israel land grab is of areas with an overwhelmingly Arab-speaking and culturally Arab population, by a state which has total military dominance in the region, and has full military, diplomatic and financial backing from the world’s only remaining superpower.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Rem

      Not all Jewish Americans are Zionist. Stop with this racist no-sense.

      Reply to Comment
    3. David

      This American Jew is disgusted by Netanyahu’s outrageous effort to thwart the possibility of an agreement with Iran. He has positioned himself unambiguously as a war monger. Further, his unconscionable display of arrogance toward President Obama should be vigorously denounced. For me it is not a function of allegiance to Israel or America. It is, rather, a source of embarrassment that the leader of the Jewish state is such an implacable foe of the possibility of peace. Clearly he has no real interest in alignment with American Jews. He has chosen instead to align himself with the far right, whether Jewish or fundamentalist Christianity.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Dave

      The Jewish-American Establishment exists to strengthen and protect its own interests, support for Israel being a means to an end, not the end unto itself. Hence the double cross by Bibi and his Republican-Frank Luntz trained operative, Dermer. The catalyst for the genesis of the “Jewish Establishment” was a desire to gain entre into the wasp establishment. When that didn’t prove possible, Jews like Kristol, Peretz, and the rest of the pantheon of Jewish Neo-Cons decided to create a “paralell establishment”. Its creation and being having less to do with influencing Jews as much as it has to do with influencing other Americans. Since the purpose of the Jewish Establishment is to essentially lay claim to a nice wedge of the American Pie in perpetuity, it cannot afford to buck the consensus, and the self-appointed leadership of the community understand this implicitly. So does Bibi and Dermer. Thus the speech, and the way it was arranged, is essentially an ultimatum to the majority of Jews in the US and their political representation; “Either vote Republican or caucus with them or you’re an anti-semite, self-hating jew, anti-zionist, ….terrorist?” Take your pick. Wait. Give it 6 months for AIPAC to digest what just happened. Not only will they be riding the Peace Train, they’ll be both conductor and engineer. Anything to maintain their position within the American social and political ziggurat and to keep those upstart “J-Streeters” in their place, lol.

      Reply to Comment
    5. David

      Netanyahu didn’t create a rift but may have brought it to the surface. But the rift between US liberals and Israeli is deep and wide. American Jewish voters have had a cognitive dissonance.

      On college campuses across the US Jewish and pro-Israel organizations are ridiculed. Support for opposing positions extends beyond the West Bank Palestinian Authority to include Hamas, Hezbollah, and even ISIL. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_VjIAzjX-c, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOIv6owDXYo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8GDp1nwq_I, BDS Campaign Sweeps UC Campuses (http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3930), How Many Democrats Booed Jerusalem at the DNC? (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/06/how-many-democrats-booed-jerusalem-at-the-dnc.html).

      The net is that anti-Israel sentiment is rampant on US college campuses and in left-wing circles. President Obama and leading Democrats in the US draw their support and funding from those circles. Meanwhile, evangelical Christians, largely associated with the Republican party since the 1980s, have become a major support group for Israel.

      The US administration is extremely anxious to have a deal, virtually any deal, on Iran. The goal of President Obama is widely seen to restore diplomatic relations with Iran as he has tried to do with Cuba. They have sold-out Ukraine in order to gain Russian support.

      The Iranians continue refuse inspections and providing information (This week in the NY Times: Inspectors Say Iran Is Evading Questions as Nuclear Talks Enter a Crucial Stage http://nyti.ms/1FzwqYs_). It appears that there is an effort to add obtuse technical details to the agreement that will allow its terms to unclear and ambiguous.

      Pro-Iranian groups now control Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Netanhayu’s address simply highlights a rift that already existed, anti-Israel views that are widespread in the US among the President’s political party and its supporters, and will likely force pro-Israel support to galvanize and become more overt.

      The best question to ask may be: Which Israelis consider President Obama a friend to Israel?

      Reply to Comment
    6. Yeah,Right

      It isn’t “Israeli apathy” at work. It’s “Israeli hubris”.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Average American

      Oh my God, Rice actually said something that wasn’t sucking Israel’s dick? Astounding.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Behnam Shahariyyani

      My sources tell me that AIPAC members are about to get an unpleasant surprise from the IRS next year. It should be AIPAC members being sanctioned, not the Islamic Republic of Iran

      Reply to Comment
    9. Brian

      Meir Dagan, in the Yediot Ahronot interview, just destroyed Netanyahu’s pretensions and confusions on Iran. The jig is up.

      Reply to Comment
    10. From an objective formally pro israeli American, the gig is up. The advent of the internet meant the end for the parasitic, criminal, baby killing state of israel. No more BS 6 million, ponzi schemes, fleecing the American tax payer, etc etc etc etc.
      Because of the internet I, and soon many others (hopefully- although gruber was right ‘stupid americans’)know about the USS Liberty, King David Hotel, Lavonne, sold out pols (obvious mcshame and pansy boy graham), etc etc etc.
      My advice is for the good jews to step forward in all countries and condemn / attack zionism/ aipac etc etc etc while they can.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Your meds only work if you take them every day, Gottesman.

        Reply to Comment