Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu's singular achievement

His cluelessness somehow makes dissenters out of Robert Kagan and Richard Cohen

Critical as I am about Benjamin Netanyahu, I must acknowledge that he does have the virtue of bringing out the best in op-ed writers with whom I ordinarily disagree. Robert Kagan, somewhat of a militarist to my mind, wrote a nice piece, "At what price Netanyahu?" in the Washington Post a couple of days ago.

Kagan noted that Netanyahu's speech was not going to add much, if anything, to what the U.S. government and the public already knew about his thoughts about Iran. Neither was Netanyahu's appearance likely to prove beneficial to the U.S.-Israel relationship, Kagan noted. (As it happens, Kagan was correct. Nothing Netanyahu had to say advanced the discussion about how to deal with Iran.) But he made both of those points on the way to the larger observation that "the precedent... set [by Speaker John Boehner's partisan invite of Netanyahu] is a bad one."

The invitation creates another opportunity to exacerbate political divisions, when they exist, between congress and the president, Kagan observed.

"Is anyone thinking about the future?" he wrote. "From now on, whenever the opposition party happens to control Congress — a common enough occurrence — it may call in a foreign leader to speak to a joint meeting of Congress against a president and his policies. Think of how this might have played out in the past. A Democratic-controlled Congress in the 1980s might, for instance, have called the Nobel Prize-winning Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to denounce President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Central America. A Democratic-controlled Congress in 2003 might have called French President Jacques Chirac to oppose President George W. Bush’s impending war in Iraq."

Would that Democrats had found a way to be more forceful in their resistance to both Reagan and Bush. Regardless, it may turn out that Kagan worries too much here about the likelihood that Boehner's ill-advised move will be the first of a future series of insults to the president that use foreign leaders as ceremonial props. Still, it is nice of him to worry.

Following up on Kagan, the Post's Richard Cohen also expressed real alarm about Netanyahu's appearance. In "Israel's moral argument is on the line", Cohen made a point about Israel's lack of strategic importance to the United States that I found surprising coming from him.

"Israel may be beloved, but for American security, it is not essential," Cohen wrote. "The fact is that the United States does not need Israel. Our special relationship was not forged, as it was with Great Britain, in two world wars, not to mention a common language and, in significant respects, culture. It is based on warmth, emotion, shared values — and, not to be dismissed, a potent domestic lobby. But these ties are eroding. Support for Israel remains strong, but where once it was universal, it has increasingly drifted from left to right. In the liberal community, hostility toward Israel is unmistakable. Some of it is openly expressed, some of it merely whispered."

There's plenty to argue with in Cohen's piece. He has always refrained from anything but the most mild criticism of Israel, and there is nothing here that is harshly critical of Israel, either. Indeed, Cohen applauds Harry Truman for disregarding advice and being the first country to recognize Israel.

"To be clear, Truman did the right thing — and he did it with commendable alacrity. (The United States was the first nation to recognize Israel.) Truman acted for a number of reasons. He was an inveterate Bible reader and he thought Jews had a powerful moral claim to what was then Palestine; he was aware that Israel was not some sort of post-Holocaust compensation package for worldwide Jewry, but a necessity for their survival. And, lastly, Truman needed the Jewish vote, particularly in New York state," Cohen wrote in the Post.

Never mind that however powerful the Jewish "moral" claim to Palestine might have been, to secure that claim required ignoring the fact that Palestinians had a quite defensible claim of their own. Nor is there anything especially ethical in recognizing Israel as a means to securing the support of Jewish voters.

Still, Cohen is generally not in the habit of conceding that the U.S. and Israel, at this point in time, have quite divergent strategic interests. The credit for Cohen's observation should be regarded as the joint achievement of John Boehner and Benjamin Netanyahu.

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