THE BLOG

Netanyahu's Takeover Bid

03/01/2015 10:34 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2015

The speech that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, will deliver to Congress on March 3rd aims to scuttle an agreement on nuclear inspections and technology between Iran and the United States. Netanyahu would like to sow a suspicion between these countries so fraught and durable that it will also prevent any possible future agreement. For that purpose he will restate his drastic and persistent belief on the subject. To permit Iran to go beyond the most primitive use of its nuclear facilities would pose an "existential threat" to Israel.

Netanyahu has given America several final chances to dispose of this existential threat. Each time, he announced that Iran would attack Israel within months if the US did not bomb Iran first; more than once, he said that Israel would attack Iran unassisted if Americans were blind to the emergency. But the Iranian attack on Israel has never come. The Israeli solo attack on Iran has never been tried. Meanwhile, it has become clear that no regimen of inspection, no matter how penetrating and rigorous, could satisfy Netanyahu of an adequate Iranian compliance. What he asks is really the surrender of Iran's advanced technology: a surrender that would seal its consent to be a second-rate regional power, subordinate to the will of Israel.

In his attempt to choke off the latest negotiations, Netanyahu has followed the pattern that led him to urge the United States to bomb, invade, and occupy Iraq. This, he said, would bring peace to the entire region. Similar pressure, some of it again traceable to Netanyahu, backed the proposal that the U.S. lead a multinational mission against Syria in order to depose the Assad government. This, it was said, would save that country and stabilize the region. War with Iraq, war with Iran, war with Syria -- there is a conspicuous common thread in all of Netanyahu's proposed measures for a lasting peace.

His method of persuasion is always the same. A sham emergency is used to justify breaking off an impending agreement or launching a new war. But the case for emergency with Iran depends on his private theory that Iran is a "suicide nation" -- that as soon as it develops a nuclear weapon, it will use the weapon to destroy Israel and precipitate its own destruction. Netanyahu has continued to hold this theory against the opposing testimony of many leaders of Israeli intelligence and state security. That they have publicly disputed his judgment on Iran shows how reckless they consider his adventurism to be.

Until recently, this pattern met with little resistance from American defense experts and politicians. They were reluctant to criticize the leader of an allied country, and doubtless too they feared the retaliation of AIPAC: the strongest arm of the Israel lobby in the United States. AIPAC has shown itself capable of destroying political careers; but in the past, the lobby was content simply to follow the bidding of the Israeli government. Something more complicated is happening today.

For the past twenty years the Republican Party has looked to move Jewish donors from the Democratic to the Republican column. Eventually, they hope to bring Jewish voters with them, but the donors matter more. Aspirants for the party nomination in 2016 have already trekked to Las Vegas, summoned for auditions there by the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who, it will be remembered, in 2012 bankrolled the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. At the same time, Adelson is a strong supporter of Netanyahu's campaign in Israel, through the flattering coverage he can offer as the owner of the tabloid Israel Hayom ("Israel Today"). Adelson's tabloid is in fact the most widely read newspaper in Israel.

The Israeli election falls exactly two weeks after Netanyahu's visit to Washington. How then can we avoid interpreting his speech to Congress as an attempt to merge the interests of the Republican Party and Benjamin Netanyahu? The Republican Party carries a banner that reads "United States" and Netanyahu carries a banner that reads "Israel." His acceptance of the invitation is thus several things at once. It is an attempt to disrupt a process of international negotiations in which the US and Europe have been deeply involved. It is an exercise of brazen electioneering to promote his continued leadership of Israel itself. And it is a calculated insult to the sovereignty of the United States.

It is, in truth, an unprecedented effort to identify the interest of a party with the interest of the country and, once that is accomplished, to merge the interests of two countries as if they were in no way different. And yet there are some respects in which the United States and Israel do visibly differ. Persons of Arab descent in the United States enjoy the rights of first-class citizens. In Israel, they do not.

His speech is sure to contain the following elements. Netanyahu will salute the members of both parties. He will remind us that he lived in America for a time, and his unaccented English will confirm this. He will acknowledge that his speech has become a subject of controversy, but he cannot avoid the challenge of this crisis, when his message is especially important. The fate of the United States as well as Israel hangs in the balance. The threat from Iran is the most dire that has faced the world since the rise of Hitler. Just as Fascism arose in more than one country, so has Warrior Islam also arisen in more than one country. This analogy is inevitable given Netanyahu's ambition to inherit the mantle of Churchill -- a piece of drapery several sizes too large for him.

Netanyahu now will concoct an amalgam between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims. Al-Qaeda was a Sunni organization and ISIS is also Sunni. The Iranian Mullahs and Hezbollah are Shiite, and neither has declared an intention to wage war on the United States. Netanyahu will level and conflate the nature and characters of these groups and will imply that the Shiite Muslims of Iran (whom Israel fears) are the same as the Sunni Muslims of ISIS (who foment violence against Europe and the United States). He will combine a vague imputation against the largest possible body of Muslims with a broad assertion that Israel has no interest in religious war. He himself is tolerant of persons of every faith. The Christians of North Africa and Syria are in mortal peril, and Israel has been generous in helping them. Netanyahu will also, feelingly, praise the sacrifices of American soldiers. He will remind us again of the events of September 11, 2001. He will say that Israelis are uniquely equipped to sympathize with what Americans suffered then. We are still fighting the battles that began on that day; and though he is a man of peace and would wish the battles to end, he is an honest and honorable man above all; so he cannot shirk the duties imposed by this critical state of affairs. He will barely mention the name of President Obama, but will indicate that he has come to the conclusion that our president is naïve about the dangers that have set the Middle East ablaze. America, like Israel, is a great country because it is bigger than the weaknesses of any single person.

Very possibly, since he has a low idea of the intelligence of Americans -- he has said that "America is a thing you can move very easily" -- the Israeli prime minister will top off the history lesson by proposing certain resemblances between the year 2015 and 1938. For Netanyahu, the place is always Munich and the time is always 1938. It was 1938 and Saddam Hussein was Hitler when Netanyahu told the US to launch the war on Iraq. It was 1938 once more when he asked Congress, on his last visit, to admire his resistance to the president's negotiation with Palestinians, because the Palestinians were an existential threat. In conclusion, Netanyahu will invoke those ties of warm affection, mutual respect, and concern for human rights and freedom that join Israel and the United States in an alliance the president himself has called sacrosanct.

And yet, piety is a very inadequate measure of right and wrong. Brute loyalty often plays reckless games with morality, and an unsuspecting confidence between separate nations is ill-advised for exactly the reasons George Washington gave in his Farewell Address of 1796. We ought, said Washington, to avoid "permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others," because "the nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest."

As if he anticipated the strange moment in which we find ourselves -- when a foreign leader who asked us to fight one disastrous war now commands us to fight another on his behalf -- Washington said:

"A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification."

When Netanyahu addressed Congress on May 24, 2011, to embarrass President Obama and cut down American criticism of the most recent illegal Israeli settlements, Congress gave him 29 standing ovations. That was a gesture of thoughtless servility, and a mistake that should not be repeated. The difference between George Washington and Benjamin Netanyahu marks a real choice. In the matter of the proper judgment of American interests, Washington and Netanyahu stand at opposite poles. They cannot both be right. On March 3, before awarding Netanyahu another 29 standing ovations, or 19 or even one, let the members of Congress ask themselves whose advice they will heed on the danger of "passionate attachments" and "inveterate antipathies." Netanyahu and his backers in Congress are an existential threat to the independence of American foreign policy.