When I heard that John Boehner was inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress next month, a faded, sharply contrasting memory of another solemn speech, another leader before a foreign assembly, flashed through my mind. I recalled watching the live broadcast of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's speech to the Knesset in 1977, an event that set the standard of courage by which all Middle East peace efforts have been measured ever since.
Repeatedly, Sadat stressed that he had decided to go to the "farthest point on Earth," to Jerusalem, to make peace. That's a strange comment, I thought at the time. Jerusalem isn't so far from Cairo. But Sadat's description was correct: Emotionally, he had journeyed to a very distant place, at the formal invitation of an enemy, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, to end years of bloodshed.
Bibi Netanyahu is the un-Sadat. He will fly much farther to get to Washington but will cross no emotional barriers. At the invitation of a sycophant, he'll speak to a safe audience. Rather than trying to push forward a peace process, both Netanyahu and his host are hoping for tactical political gains and seek to scuttle Middle East diplomacy. But Boehner is likely to get little profit out of the event, and for Netanyahu, it could well backfire.
Let's start with the Speaker of the House: Like other Republicans, he hopes to turn Israel into a wedge issue that will draw Jewish voters to his camp. Before each U.S. election in recent memory, Republicans, and especially the small number of Jewish Republicans, predicted that Jews would realize that only the GOP could be trusted to protect Israel. But the Republican expectation of the Great Jewish Shift has proved to be about as realistic as the Republican position on climate change. Polling (like this in-depth 2008 study) consistently shows that most American Jews see liberalism as basic to their Jewish identity and that most place Israel fairly low in their voting priorities.
Nonetheless, when Bibi came to Washington a year ago, Boehner played mouthpiece for him. The Republican congressman attacked the administration for opposing Israeli settlement-building and for purportedly being soft on Iran's nuclear program. After the midterm elections last November, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got a one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu, who was again in the States. Afterward, Cantor's office issued a statement echoing all of Netanyahu's talking points on Iran and the Palestinians, and concluding that "the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one-party rule in Washington."
Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu follows the same pattern, based on the same fantasies about the Jewish vote: While the Obama team dithers about whether to put forward a framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, the Republicans will show their unquestioning support for Israeli policy. Netanyahu, for his part, will again tell Congress that Iran is the root of all fury in the Middle East. He'll make some proposals carefully calibrated to be unacceptable to the Palestinians, and he will expect the applause on Capitol Hill to warn President Barack Obama against any untoward diplomacy.
While being seen with Bibi is unlikely to boost Boehner's popularity among Jewish voters, it might very well hurt Netanyahu's standing among that same Democratic constituency. In the worst case for Netanyahu and the best case for Israel, a speech planned for late May could push Obama to announce his own proposals beforehand.
As for Democrats in Congress, they should applaud politely when Bibi speaks and then stress, for attribution or not, that Mr. Netanyahu is always welcome in Washington, but really, there are some more appropriate spots for him to lay out his diplomatic vision.
To start, under Israel's parliamentary system, Netanyahu rules by the grace of the Knesset, not the U.S. Congress. At the parliament, within walking distance of his office, he should finally describe his real plans. To any rational observer, it appears that the prime minister's goal during his two years in power has been to continue building houses for Israelis in the West Bank, to evade meaningful negotiations, and to avoid giving up an inch of the Whole Land of Israel. In short, as political scientist Shlomo Avineri pointed out this week, "Netanyahu has done exactly what his ideological beliefs dictate." If that impression is correct, he should explain whether he intends to give the Palestinians citizenship or permanently keep them disenfranchised. Likewise, he should explain what he plans to do -- besides talking about anti-Semitism and the Iranian bomb -- if the United Nations recognizes Palestinian independence in September.
On the other hand, if he has misrepresented himself, he doesn't need to fly to Washington to make peace. He can make a short trip north to Ramallah to address Palestinian legislators (after releasing those currently in Israeli prisons). For that trip to make a difference, it would have to demonstrate a break with the past, a change in position as decisive as Sadat's declaration that Israel deserved to live in peace, "within her borders, secure against any aggression." For Netanyahu, the parallel break would be to declare that the State of Palestine would be able to live securely within borders based on the pre-1967 lines.
That journey should be complemented by another. In his 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu laid out his belief that true peace in the Middle East required "Arab regimes to move toward democracy." One might suspect that this credo was merely a tactic for avoiding diplomacy, especially given Netanyahu's less-than-enthusiastic response to this winter's Egyptian revolution. But if he was actually sincere, he should already be asking for the chance to speak before Egypt's new parliament the day after it is elected. There he would proclaim Israel's joy at the spread of democracy and his intent to reach a new regional order, including a Palestinian state.
But those journeys would require courage. Popping in to see friends on Capitol Hill does not. And Netanyahu has yet to show signs of being willing to go to the farthest points on Earth to make peace.
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