Israeli PM Netanyahu’s March 3 speech in the US Congress was a rather amazing political event, and one that especially to a European eye appears difficult to understand and interpret.
American rhetoric on being “the indispensable nation” can certainly be challenged, yet there is little doubt that for Israel the US is indeed indispensable. It would be enough to consider a yearly average of three billion dollars in grants (for a total, since the independence of Israel, of 121 billion) – money that since 2007 goes only to defense procurement. But it is not only money, and not only defense. Washington’s systematic, one could say unconditional support to Israel is mainly political. Of the 83 times the US has used its veto in the UN Security Council, 42 have been to prevent a condemnation of Israeli actions.
Going to Washington without an invitation by the President of the United States and speaking in Congress was much more than a breach of diplomatic protocol. It was a blatant, provocative partisan option: for Congress and its militant Republican majority against the White House. An option that entails certain risks in a system in which even a President nearing the end of his mandate, and having to deal with a hostile majority in Congress, can still react, especially if faced with such a provocative challenge to his prerogatives.
Why the gamble, then? The easy explanation is March 17, when Israelis will go to the polls for a general election. Netanyahu’s Likud Party is facing the “Zionist Union”, an alliance between Labor, led by Isaac Herzog, and the Centrists, led by Tzipi Livni, a center-left coalition with a platform focused on socio-economic issues and trying to draw support from the widespread discontent caused by economic difficulties and a deterioration in welfare. Likud is instead trying to focus on security, and in particular on Iran, described as a permanent genocidal threat to Israel. By going to Washington at a time when negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue seem to have entered a still difficult but promising stage, Netanyahu wanted to appear to the Israeli electorate in a high profile, statesman-like (some have ironically defined it as “Churchillian”) posturing facing what he presents as a life-and-death issue for Israel. In his speech Netanyahu cast Obama’s attempt to reach an agreement with Iran – repeatedly described by him as “a messianic, apocalyptic regime” – as a mistaken and naïve, while eluding the Palestinian issue and avoiding to give priority to the real threat of the jihadi onslaught near Israel’s borders.
For Israel the US has been since independence an unconditional protector – much more unconditional than European countries treading the difficult, and often contradictory path between the twin goals of preserving Israel’s security and addressing the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians.
It is false, on the other hand, that Europeans are insensitive to the need to preserve Israel’s security, and it is preposterous for Americans to claim the monopoly to the title of “friends of Israel”. In opting (much before the Americans: remember the 1980 Venice declaration) for a two-state solution the Europeans were not only inspired by a recognition of the rights of Palestinians, but also by their concern about the future of Israel.
The present status quo can be considered dangerous for the future of Israel on the basis of a conviction that is not only European, but is shared by many Israelis and many Americans: Israel cannot be at the same time large (i.e. including the West Bank and Gaza), Jewish and democratic. If it is large and Jewish it cannot be democratic, since in that case Palestinians will have to be kept in the status of second-class citizens, if not expelled by a process of ethnic cleansing. If it is large and democratic it will not be Jewish, since demographic trends point in the direction of a growth of the Palestinian population, so that the inevitable result would be the creation of a bi-national state. Israel can only be Jewish and democratic if it is small, i.e. if a Palestinian state is built alongside it. Friendship means telling the truth, not going along with your friend’s delusions and tragic mistakes.
In the US the situation is sharply different, but not because Americans are friends of Israel and we Europeans are not.
One talks a lot about the “Jewish lobby” in the US, but usually without analyzing its real nature. In the first place, these days it would be more correct to talk about the “Likud lobby”, given the fact that its most powerful, more active organization, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is doubly partisan, since it represents neither progressive American Jews nor progressive and pro-peace Israelis.
One tends to forget that the majority of American Jews vote for the Democratic Party: in 2008 78 per cent of US Jews (as compared to 53 per cent of the electorate at large) voted for Barack Obama; in 2012 it was 69 per cent (versus 51).
But money counts more than individual voters, so that if one introduces into the picture contributions to electoral campaigns it is not difficult to understand why the political content of Jewish lobbying is overwhelmingly slanted in a rightwing direction. Definitely a Jewish academic or small shopkeeper (let us reject the insidiously anti-Semitic caricature according to which all Jews are rich!) do not have the same capacity to influence US politics as Sheldon Adelson, the owner of casinos in Las Vegas, Macao and Singapore. This helps us understand why also most (though not all) Democrats gave standing ovations to the speech of a foreign leader questioning and attacking a Democratic president. As the brilliant comedian Jon Stewart said in one of his shows, imagine what would have happened if French President Chirac had been invited to Congress to criticize George Bush’s Iraq war. But of course there is no “French lobby” financing political campaigns in the US.
And yet, it cannot be ruled out that Netanyahu’s provocation will end up affecting the overwhelming conformity with which American politicians have until now adhered to the most unilateral and extreme postures of Israeli governments. In politics, excess and demagoguery do not always pay.
Roberto Toscano, former Italy's ambassador to Iran (2003-2008) and to India (2008-2010)