On Tuesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address a joint session of the United States Congress. Netanyahu was invited to speak not through standard diplomatic procedures—the kind of procedures, say, that the President of the United States might go through to speak to Israel’s Knesset. Instead, Netanyahu got a special invitation from Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Boehner and Congressional Republicans—who can’t seem to do the most basic parts of their job in funding government agencies and our national security apparatus for more than a week at a time—are trying to thumb their noses at the White House. Netanyahu, no fan of Obama himself, is obliging. And anyone who attends or watches the speech is helping.
As if that isn’t reason enough not to tune in, here are three other reasons why Members of Congress and all of us should heed the call to boycott Netanyahu’s speech.
Netanyahu is trying to scuttle promising negotiations with Iran.
According to a poll last year, that 60 percent of American voters—including a strong majority of both Democrats, Independents and Republicans—support making a deal with Iran to limit the country’s nuclear enrichment capacity and impose additional inspections in exchange for easing some of the existing sanctions. And yet despite President Obama’s veto threat, pointing out the harm that would be done to promising negotiations so far, Republicans are threatening to increase sanctions on Iran now that Republicans control both the House and Senate. This approach is endorsed by only 35 percent of Americans. And yet it’s supported by one prominent non-American—Bibi Netanyahu.
To be sure, Netanyahu has been angry at the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran from the very beginning. Is he just bitter that the United States opened up back-channel talks in the first place without first informing Israel? Or does Netanyahu rely on the endless specter of war with Iran to rationalize his own hawkish policies?
Netanyahu has said to the United States: “Iran is not your ally. Iran is not your friend. Iran is your enemy. It’s not your partner. Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel.” But the Obama Administration isn’t becoming besties with Iran. The United States is negotiating with Iran to try and stop an already dangerous state from becoming a nuclear power. Isn’t that preferable to what seems to be Netanyahu’s alternative—a permanent state of tension or eventual escalation to war?
Netanyahu is meddling in American politics.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is using his hawkish fearmongering, plus his own domestic political needs as he faces re-election, to make an excuse for inserting himself into American politics. Not only is he trying to scuttle our diplomatic process, Netanyahu is trying to put his thumb firmly on the scale of the Republican Party. In so doing, Haaretz—the leading English-language newspaper of Israel—argues that Netanyahu not only risks sabotaging America’s important relationship with Israel but acting as Iran’s “secret weapon” by undermining President Obama. Indeed, President Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice agrees, calling Netanyahu’s petty move “destructive” to U.S./Israel relations. In retaliation, a pro-Israel advocate took out a full-page ad in the New York Times accusing Rice of ignoring genocide. Facing a difficult re-election campaign, Netanyahu is trying to look tough by portraying the United States as weak. Yet negotiating with a dangerous enemy state to prevent nuclear proliferation is a strong and strategic and smart move. Trying to scuttle it for political show points is weak and pathetic.
Can you imagine if President Obama waded into Israeli politics with equally demonstrable support of Netanyahu’s opposition? Republicans would be calling Obama un-presidential and overly partisan. And imagine if, during President Bush’s two terms, Democrats had circumvented the White House to invite a sitting head of state to speak to Congress? Republicans would be shouting from the rooftops about disrespect and the unity of patriotism.
Republicans already seem dangerously disrespectful toward the White House—the most recent comments by Rudy Giuliani questioning President Obama’s patriotism is just the latest example. This is a moment when Republicans should be showing they can honor the authority and dignity of the office of Presidency of the United States of America and respect the person holding that office, even when they don’t agree with his policies. As is, the Netanyahu speech will seem like just another example of Republicans being petty, spiteful and intolerant.
Netanyahu does not speak for all Jews.
Netanyahu has proclaimed that he’s coming to Congress to speak “not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.” Sorry, Bibi: You don’t.
Many of Israel’s leaders have worked to conflate Zionism with Judaism and Netanyahu has doubled down on this with intensity, suggesting that even the slightest criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. But the simple fact is that not only does Netanyahu not even philosophically represent all Israelis but in literal terms, he certainly does not represent all Jews.
In fact, a poll conducted by the Jewish advocacy organization J Street found that 84 percent of Jewish-Americans support President Obama in his efforts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran. Very plainly, in every sense imaginable, Netanyahu does not represent American Jews tuning into his speech—whether in Congress, on TV or on social media—and watching wouldn’t necessarily show support for the Jewish people or even Israel. Nor is boycotting the speech in any way, shape or form anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. In fact, articulating and operating from a more nuanced and accurate understanding of anti-Semitism would be infinitely more helpful to Jews and Israel in general than attending Netanyahu’s selfish star turn.
Apparently, it’s not enough for Benjamin Netanyahu to poison the political terrain in Israel he has to spread his toxic extremism in America, too. Don’t let him do it, people.
Sally Kohn is a columnist and CNN political commentator. You can find her online at sallykohn.com.