I think that most of us expected Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday before the US Congress to be a defiant right wing speech. Commentators, no doubt had their stories ready entitled, “Bibi rebukes Barack” or “Bibi Bashes O!” It just didn’t happen.
Instead Netanyahu came before a joint session of Congress and delivered what may well have been the best received address in the history of the Congress. The vast majority of Republicans and Democrats loved it and applauded repeatedly. The number that I have seen is that there were 29 standing ovations. If you watch the video of the speech, you may get a different impression, namely that there was one ovation that never stopped which was simply interrupted by a few words by Bibi every minute or so. A friend of mine, who is as die-hard a Democrat as they come, said that she was overwhelmed by the love in the room.
So what made it so good?
First, there is a real love for Israel in the Congress. It is not just about getting votes and donations. There is a real feeling of connection between the Congress and the people of Israel. So this was a friendly crowd.
Second, partisanship went out the window right away with the skillful and heartfelt inclusion of thanks to President Obama for what he has done. Netanyahu mentioned the killing of Osama Bin-Laden, the President’s approval of funding, added funds for Iron Dome, opposition to a unilateral declaration in the UN, support for sanctions against Iran and concerns about the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and its impact. In other words, credit was given where it was due and no doubt the Democrats in the room were appreciative. It even sounded like Netanyahu meant it. He didn’t just say it. I think they appreciated that all the more.
Netanyahu went on to talk about the tumult around the world and of the history of the region, particularly of Iran, comparing that revolution and that in Lebanon in the recent past with that of Egypt recently. Suddenly the rapid march toward Democracy and upheaval in the region seemed a bit more questionable and dangerous. It could turn and could be dangerous for both Israel and America. This point, which has largely been avoided by this administration, was made deftly by Netanyahu to an enrapt Congress.
He talked about freedom in the region. Bibi connected to the left and right by mentioning Christians, Women, and Gays, noting that Israel stands out for its treatment of them. He went on to talk about freedoms cherished by Americans that Israel alone grants to its citizenry in the region. Further, he noted that only Arab citizens of Israel have these rights in the Arab world.
Netanyahu then delivered the coup de grace to the notion that it is Israel that is the problem:
This startling fact reveals a basic truth: Israel is not what is wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what is right about the Middle East.
At this point, Bibi rightly could talk about the peace process because now the discussion would not be about creating a Palestinian state out of an oppressive Israel, but instead about protecting Israel from the threat posed by the creation of a Palestinian state. It is this perspective that President Obama has repeatedly failed to convey when he has addressed Israeli-Palestinian peace, the perspective that Israel and what is right and good about Israel need to be preserved in the face of the challenge of the two state solution. It is this failure that has led no few to question his motives even when he says all of the right things. It is viewing the process from this perspective that might enable peace to move forward. If the President can convey that he indeed does see the conflict from this perspective, there might yet still be hope to advance peace though it is difficult to see any progress being made any time soon.
From this perspective, one of preserving what is right and good about Israel, Netanyahu was able to discuss the details of peace and what Israel requires without sounding hawkish at all and in fact while effortlessly demonstrating how those on the other side of the issues are potentially jeopardizing the entire enterprise.
He taught a history lesson and demonstrated that Israel supports democracy in the region and discussed the Iranian threat to Israel and America. Netanyahu went on to talk about peace with the Palestinians and he did so with facts, talking about cooperation and prosperity. Then he put forth an argument that I think most found indisputable:
So now here is the question. You have to ask it. If the benefits of peace with the Palestinians are so clear, why has peace eluded us? Because all six Israeli Prime Ministers since the signing of Oslo accords agreed to establish a Palestinian state. Myself included. So why has peace not been achieved? Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.
You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state.
At that point, Netanyahu noted where the blame falls in such a way that again it would be difficult to dispute:
They were simply unwilling to end the conflict. And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists. And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.
My friends, this must come to an end. President Abbas must do what I have done. I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn’t easy for me, and I said… “I will accept a Palestinian state.” It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say… “I will accept a Jewish state.”
Those six words will change history.
Having set up the discussion with all of this background, Netanyahu’s introduction of the issue of settlements then sounded very pragmatic and when he spoke of the borders in a future agreement, he didn’t say it himself, he quoted President Obama:
As President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967.
Right of Return was again discussed based upon President Obama’s own words:
President Obama rightly referred to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, just as he referred to the future Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people. Jews from around the world have a right to immigrate to the Jewish state. Palestinians from around the world should have a right to immigrate, if they so choose, to a Palestinian state. This means that the Palestinian refugee problem will be resolved outside the borders of Israel.
Hard to call him radical right, though some do anyway, when he is using the President’s own words as the basis for his conclusions. Finally, having done all of this, he brought up perhaps the most difficult issue:
As for Jerusalem, only a democratic Israel has protected freedom of worship for all faiths in the city. Jerusalem must never again be divided. Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel. I know that this is a difficult issue for Palestinians. But I believe with creativity and goodwill a solution can be found.
There is no better case for why Jerusalem should remain united than the one Bibi made. Only those who believe that freedom of worship and access to holy sites is irrelevant and those who believe that this freedom must be sacrificed to appease the Palestinian side could argue otherwise. Bibi then added a clear explanation of why Israel could not simply withdraw security control. On the surface, he meant over the eastern border, but in the context, it could easy be connected to a discussion of Jerusalem as well. Netanyahu said:
So if Israel simply walked out of the territories, the flow of weapons into a future Palestinian state would be unchecked. Missiles fired from it could reach virtually every home in Israel in less than a minute. I want you to think about that too. Imagine that right now we all had less than 60 seconds to find shelter from an incoming rocket. Would you live that way? Would anyone live that way? Well, we aren’t going to live that way either.
No one in the room could deny the power of this argument. No UN declaration will change a thing. That Bibi went on to praise Obama for opposing Palestinian efforts in the UN again was well appreciated.
Finally, Bibi explained in a very simple way why there is such a strong bond between Israel and the United States and did so in a way that energized the entire crowd. His words of conclusion need little commentary:
My friends, the momentous trials of the last century, and the unfolding events of this century, attest to the decisive role of the United States in advancing peace and defending freedom. Providence entrusted the United States to be the guardian of liberty. All peoples who cherish freedom owe a profound debt of gratitude to your great nation. Among the most grateful nations is my nation, the people of Israel, who have fought for their liberty and survival against impossible odds, in ancient and modern times alike.
I speak on behalf of the Jewish people and the Jewish state when I say to you, representatives of America, Thank you. Thank you for your unwavering support for Israel. Thank you for ensuring that the flame of freedom burns bright throughout the world. May God bless all of you. And may God forever bless the United States of America.
Can you imagine another world leader saying these words of friendship and blessing? I think that the leader of Israel alone could say them. He received thunderous applause.
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