When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu addresses Congress this week, he will have appeared more often than any other foreign leader in American history, excepting Winston Churchill, who was also bequeathed this high honor and distinct privilege three times. Pretty fair company.
Speeches to a Joint Session of Congress are almost always part of a grand Washington tour highlighted by a meeting with the president and a gala White House state dinner. But not this time.
In a remarkable breach of diplomatic protocol (and display of brazen partisanship) Speaker of the House John Boehner arranged Bibi’s Washington appearance without even conferring with President Barack Obama. Although both the Speaker and the Prime Minister feigned innocence, the Obama snub was clearly calculated. The White House responded in kind, sniffing that the president would not be seeing Mr. Netanyahu when he was in town and seeking to discredit the whole affair. The upshot is that US-Israeli relations, already strained, now appear in crisis.
What is going on here?
The proximate issue is US policy towards Iran. Boehner and the conservatives in Congress believe that Iran’s nuclear program poses such grave risks that it requires military force, rather than Obama’s softer path of economic sanctions and diplomacy. Netanyahu sees the address as an opportunity to make this case. “There may be some people who believe that the prime minister of Israel should have declined this invitation to speak before the most powerful parliament in the world on an issue that concerns our survival and our future. But we have learned from our history that the world becomes a more dangerous place for the Jewish people when the Jewish people are silent.”
Fair enough. There is a real policy dispute here, one in which both Boehner and Netanyahu see America as insufficiently muscular in its dealings with Iran. But for both men the import of the speech lies in its role in a larger story.
Netanyahu, locked in a tough re-election campaign, seeks to cast himself in the central narrative of Israeli history, its perennial struggle for survival in a hostile world. In the national narrative, Israel exists only because it has been vigorously and vigilantly defended from the enemies that besiege it. The Iranian threat is but the latest chapter in that story. “Iran is trying to uproot us from here, but they will not succeed.” Netanyahu said, “We put down roots here, and will continue to do so, and will continue to make the country flower and create new life.”
In this drama Obama is Netanyahu’s foil: naïve and weak to Bibi’s smart and tough. Obama, it is said, will cave to the Iranians. He’s already given the Iranians 80 percent of what they want, claimed the Jerusalem Post. Netanyahu, heir to the legacy of Israel’s founders, is a fighter for Israel, willing to take on the Americans if need be. A recent Netanyahu campaign ad made the connection explicit, linking Netanyahu’s stand with Ben-Gurion’s refusal to accept the advice of the United States when Israel was founded.
So for Netanyahu, the speech is good politics even if it likely is bad foreign policy. But what are Boehner and the Congressional Republicans up to? Why such open defiance of the president’s prerogative in foreign affairs?
To make sense of this requires seeing that they, too, are telling a story. The Netanyahu vignette is an episode in a serial narrative in which Obama is depicted as weak in defense of Israel (our friend and ally) and disturbingly soft on Islamic terrorism, unlike Netanyahu, “a man who fights for his people, unlike our President,” as Rudy Giuliani recently opined.
The “soft-on-terrorism” tale aligns with another, darker narrative, invoked with “dog whistles” audible only to those already attuned. Beginning with the “Birthers” who were sure that the president was a Kenyan, efforts to “other” Obama have been unrelenting. Obama is somehow not a true American, and perhaps even one of them. In the latest installment, Fox News is in paroxysm because Obama won’t call the terrorists “Islamic,” Giuliani (there he is again) contends that Obama doesn’t love America, presidential candidate Scott Walker says he doesn’t know whether the president is a Christian, and on and on.
For Boehner and friends, Netanyahu is a bit character in the story of Obama, his visit one more vehicle to reinforce their story of the president. So this week, in the same chamber where this January the president’s State of the Union Address met with Republican jeers, Netanyahu will hear their cheers.