Good point and good catch here from Jeremy Peters on how the Netanyahu speech is planned essentially as a campaign event …
Before the Israeli elections in 2013, Mr. Netanyahu’s political coalition broadcast an advertisement that showed the prime minister addressing a joint meeting of Congress. The commercial’s message: “When Netanyahu speaks, the world listens.”
Two years later, Mr. Netanyahu is again set to address Congress. This time, he faces criticism, both at home and abroad, that he is turning a diplomatic visit into a political opportunity. Many Democrats already consider him an unwelcome guest because he was invited by congressional Republicans before Mr. Obama was informed.
A friend reminded me recently that in 1992 Rabin told AIPAC that Israel no longer needed or necessarily wanted the sort of intercessor in place in the US, part of the role AIPAC had played historically. He wanted and thought Israel was a grown up state. And states deal with each other states through foreign ministers and diplomacy and all the other ways states do business together. (I’m trying to get my friend to write something about this; we’ll see if I have any luck.)
In many ways, Netanyahu is an odd throwback, insinuating himself into US politics, acting in multiple ways like he has little grasp that these are two separate countries. But mainly not allowing Israel the dignity of actual independent, distinct statehood.
Quite apart from the fact that Netanyahu, his personal emissary Dermer and Speaker Boehner plotted to hold this show behind the President’s back, it’s hard but worth stepping back and considering just how weird this whole spectacle is.
Netanyahu’s supporters and Netanyahu especially are extremely excited by the fact that if he goes through with the speech he will be the first foreign leader since Churchill to address Congress three times. But Churchill was, for lack of a better word, Churchill. He was lead the United Kingdom as it was America’s greatest ally in the most cataclysmic and momentous war it ever fought. We should remember that two of Churchill’s three addresses were during World War II – 1941 and 1943, when he was the leader of the government of our chief ally in war. His last in 1953, in his second government and early senescence.
Of course, there are some clowns like Steve Forbes who call Netanyahu “the Churchill of our time.” But quite apart from the merits of the individuals, there’s nothing comparable to an address by a chief ally during a global war.
But here’s the real difference. The foreign head of state addressing a joint session of Congress – as opposed to each body separately – essentially began with Churchill’s first address in 1941. Since then 110 leaders and major foreign dignitaries have addressed Congress – only four more than once (Rabin: 76 and 94; Mandela 1990 and 1994). But these speeches are almost universally about non-controversial topics and in most cases focus on the relationship between the two countries. In some cases, the topic is the struggles of the foreign state in question or perhaps the struggle of the person him or herself. The idea of a foreign head of state appearing before Congress as an advocate in a debate that is a matter of great controversy within the United States is basically without precedent. This is quite apart from the equally unprecedented idea of a foreign head of state addressing Congress to advocate against a sitting President. Mainly this is because foreign heads of state or government are by definition not American.
Only it’s not quite unprecedented. At least somewhat in the first case. As Matt Duss pointed out this morning, back in 2002, Netanyahu testified before Congress on behalf of the awesomeness of the impending US invasion of Iraq. Then admittedly, Netanyahu was out of government, a semi-disgraced former Prime Minister, though he would become Foreign Minister about two months later. He told the House Government and Reform Oversight Committee, that “there is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons — no question whatsoever. If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”
As Matt jokingly suggests, maybe this controversy can be settled amicably by allowing Netanyahu to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on behalf of the US blowing up Iran.
In Washington, Netanyahu is sometimes referred to, often admiringly, other times jokingly, as the Republican Senator from Jerusalem. And that is how he acts. But again, what other head of state, really what other foreign politician, acts this way or is permitted to do so? It is unhealthy for both countries.