Obama and Netanyahu don’t like each other. And now Bibi has decided to speak to Congress over the objections of Obama. Is this a personal spat, or is much more at stake? See why this fight could be of profound significance to Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s proposed speech to the US Congress on March 3rd has provoked a firestorm of controversy in the USA. It has caused a split in the congress, and even raised a wave of opposition from American Jewish leaders.
At the personal level, it is a conflict between Obama and Netanyahu, who clearly don’t like each other.
Of course, it is also a result of partisan games between the Republican dominated Congress and a lame duck Democratic president.
But a lot more is at stake.
For the first time in recent memory, the US Congress is divided over Israel.
For the last 40 years, US support for Israel has been rock solid on both sides of the house – through the wars in Lebanon, through Sabra and Shatila, through Operation Cast Lead, Operation Protective Edge etc., etc., .. but NOW there seems to be a problem.
What is the problem?
The problem can be summed up by a pithy statement by Henry Kissinger in his memoir The White House Years. “America has no permanent friends or enemies,” noted Kissinger, “only interests.”
When strategic interests between countries overlap, (e.g. think of the US – Soviet alliance to fight the Nazis) declarations of “eternal friendship” abound. But when they don’t, everything changes.
And increasingly, it is clear that Israel has interests that do not exactly match those of the USA.
Israel, the most powerful player in the region (and the only nuclear power) wants to retain its regional hegemony. This means stopping Iran from increasing its influence.
The USA, however, wants stability in the region, and many Americans, including the White House and most of the Intelligence community, feel that the best way to protect American interests is to negotiate a deal with Iran.
So for the first time in four decades, Israeli interests are seen to be in conflict with American interests. And Netanyahu has decided to come to Congress (behind Obama’s back) to lobby for Israeli interests. And he is also doing it 2 weeks before an Israeli election, hoping that images of another set of standing ovations in Washington will increase his electoral chances.
But he appears to have accidentally stepped on a political minefield. Until now, nobody in US politics could criticize Israel without being attacked as anti-Semitic by the Israel lobby. Now Netanyahu is clearly intervening in US politics and arguing for a position that many Americans see as detrimental to US interests.
He has suceeded in opening up a policy debate over the relationship between Israel and the USA where none existed before. Some Israelis and many American Zionists are worried about the consequences for Israel.
We should watch how this plays out. Already there are quiet rumours that Netanyahu might back down and speak to the annual convention of AIPAC, the major Israeli lobby body, instead of coming to Congress.
Whether Bibi speaks to Congress or not, the cracks that he has opened will almost inevitably have significant implications for anyone interested in human rights for Palestinians. Of course, it does not mean that US support for Israel will disappear after Netanyahu’s visit. It most assuredly won’t. And as long as Israel has the unconditional backing of the USA, no significant progress is going to be made on human rights for Palestinians.
However, if Israel loses its almost mythical “untouchable” status in the US, it will no longer have a free hand to do whatever it wishes to the Palestinians.