So, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thought it was acceptable to address a joint session of Congress without coordinating it with the White House, he has now engaged in a media blitz to tell the U.S. public why he thinks the deal reached by the six world powers and Iran on its nuclear program is bad and unacceptable.
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If I had to sum up the tenor of the reactions I saw in the U.S. media to his blitz, I’d summarize it simply as, “Does this guy think we’re working for him?” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Dem.) said Netanyahu “should contain himself”; political scientist and Washington Post columnist Daniel W. Drezner writes drily that “Netanyahu is the least important player on the Iran chessboard”; and Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev noted that the net result of Netanyahu’s behavior vis-à-vis the Americans is that the prime minister has reached the point of being ignored.
Speaking to Jewish Americans these days, I see that many of them are totally put off by Netanyahu’s antics, by his predictable droning on about this being Munich 1938 all over again, implicitly comparing President Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain and Iran to Nazi Germany, and by his flaunting all etiquette between friendly nations. Most Jewish Americans are pro-Israel but keep wondering what to do about Netanyahu.
So here is a very simple suggestion: you can feel perfectly fine finding Netanyahu an embarrassment and still be totally pro-Israel.
There is no more contradiction in this than there was in finding George W. Bush an embarrassment and yet loving the United States. Bush was wrong in using so-called information about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program to convince U.S. citizens to invade Iraq in 2003. Doing so was undemocratic, immoral and unwise, and the world is still reeling from the aftereffects of a war that was conducted in a catastrophic manner. Did saying so turn you into an America-hater?
The essence of democracy is that while you are expected to respect majority decisions, this doesn’t mean you have to think they are right. It is part of the democratic ethos that you are not only allowed to criticize elected leaders, but obliged to do so if you have good reason to believe they are wrong. Personally, I have quite a distaste for the whole talk about loving leaders: it has too much of a totalitarian feel. In Stalinist Russia, Ceausescu’s Romania, and North Korea, you were supposed to love your leader. In democracies, we elect them and evaluate them on their merit. Whether I do or do not like them is largely irrelevant for this evaluation – or, at least, it should be.
So what about Netanyahu and Iran? Well, in an ideal world, Iran would be a liberal democracy, ruled by democratically elected, pluralistic, open-minded politicians whose goals are to increase the welfare of Iran’s citizens; give full and equal rights to Iran’s gays instead of having them hanged in public; and working hard for peace, harmony and stability in the Middle East. It just so happens that this is not the current situation in Iran, where unelected ayatollahs determine policy, sponsor terrorism and destabilize the region.
We didn’t need Netanyahu to tell us that a nuclear Iran is not a thrilling prospect. Nobody in the Free World and Arab countries are enthusiastic about a nuclear Iran, and all of us would want this to go away. But politics is the art of the possible. As several commentators have pointed out, no deal at all would have been the worst of options, among others, because Russia and China would have walked away from the sanctions regime – thus rendering it ineffective – if no deal was reached. It is also no secret that Obama’s long-term objective is to end more than three decades of a cold war with Iran, in the hope that this may, in the long run, facilitate a gradual transformation of Iran’s regime.
Can anybody know for certain that this is going to happen? Of course not: in international relations, you work with probabilities and, at best, with a reasoned strategy that has a chance of working.
It is quite certain, though, that attacking Iran militarily would push it toward building a nuclear bomb ASAP, and that, at this point in time, no Iranian leadership will either accept a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program or endorse Israel’s existence. So Netanyahu asking for this is not politics but empty rhetoric, as former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy said when slamming the prime minister recently. As Sen. Feinstein observed, Netanyahu has been good at criticizing the United States without putting forward a single workable proposal, along the way harming U.S.-Israel ties.
But there are many other reasons to think that Netanyahu has been a bad prime minister. I speak a lot with European diplomats and politicians, and I can assure you that Obama’s dislike for Mr. Netanyahu is by no means an exception but the rule.
Most major European leaders do whatever they can to avoid him, his patronizing lecturing, and his shameless use of tragic occasions – such as the recent terror attacks in France – for his personal political advantage. In the last six years, he has been increasing Israel’s isolation, done nothing to alleviate the country’s widening economic inequality, and significantly contributed to a sharp increase in racist incitement not only of Jews toward Arabs, but between Jewish ethnicities in Israel.
Israel’s electorate has spoken, though, and Netanyahu will have another term as premier. Law as well as etiquette require we respect this.
Slamming Netanyahu gives me no pleasure. In fact, I am sick and tired of doing so after his last six years in power. But I feel it is my duty as a political commentator, as an Israeli and Jew, to make clear why I think he has been a bad and destructive prime minister. I will be happy to say otherwise, if he gives me good reason to do so. But so far, my hopes for positive surprises from him have been consistently dashed, and I am quite skeptical that he will change. What we have seen is what we are likely to get.
Israel has existed before Netanyahu and it will exist after him. He does not represent the best, most humane, moral and creative aspects of Israel. The liberal Israel has been rather resilient so far, and it will outlive Mr. Netanyahu. So don’t let antidemocratic voices try to convince you that you are required to like or respect Netanyahu, or agree with and support the views of his ruling party, Likud, which under Netanyahu has turned from right-wing but civilized into an extremist and often disconcerting party.
Be free to cherish Israel at its best and find Mr. Netanyahu an embarrassment.