Netanyahu's Moment

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Sometimes a speech is just a speech. Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech about Iran policy on March 3 will not be his first address to Congress. It will make familiar, if important, arguments. One might assume that, like the vast majority of speeches, it would soon be overtaken by events in Israel and the United States and the world.

But the Obama administration’s reaction to the Israeli prime minister’s appearance suggests Netanyahu’s is more than just another speech. An administration that disdains the use of disproportionate force has been, to say the least, disproportionately forceful in its efforts to undermine Netanyahu’s message and discredit the messenger. What is Obama so worried about? What is he, if we may put it indelicately, so scared of?

We can get a clue from the almost equally disproportionate reaction of Obama’s surrogates to Rudy Giuliani’s suggestion that Barack Obama doesn’t love his country. Why, really, should anyone care about Giuliani’s comment? We have no crime of lèse majesté in this country. But Obama defenders did care. Did they suspect Giuliani had struck a nerve?

It seems he did. After days in which the entire media and most politicians, including many Republicans, hurried to condemn Giuliani and to assure everyone that Barack Obama loves our country as much as the next red-blooded American, a new poll from YouGov reports only 47 percent of respondents saying they think the president loves America, with a slight majority either thinking he does not (35 percent) or being unsure (17 percent). By contrast, 58 percent think Rudy Giuliani loves America, and only 10 percent think not. As for themselves, 85 percent of respondents say they love America, and only 6 percent say they do not.

What does this have to do with Netanyahu? Agree with his policies or not, no one doubts he loves his country. In fact, he seems to like America a lot, too. One suspects that if asked, respondents to the YouGov poll might have judged Netanyahu more of an America-lover than Barack Obama. And they would in a sense have been right.

After all, Obama is not just a citizen of America. He’s a citizen of the world. And he’s a disbeliever in American exceptionalism in any sense stronger than the British believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism. There’s nothing surprising about this. Obama is very much in the mainstream of modern progressive thought in his embrace of cosmopolitanism and his distrust of nationalism. He’s not interested in riding a high horse equipped, as he would see it, with patriotic blinders or nationalist spurs.

Netanyahu, by contrast, is a patriot and a nationalist. He’s an Israeli patriot and nationalist. But he also appreciates the historic role and accomplishments of the great nation-states of the West. History—the history of the Jewish people, but not only the Jewish people—is always on his mind. He is inspired by the example of Ze’ev Jabotinsky—and also of Winston Churchill. He appreciates the legacy of David Ben-Gurion—and also of Harry Truman.

When Netanyahu walks to the podium of the House of Representatives on March 3, he’ll undoubtedly have in mind an earlier speech given by a foreign leader to a joint meeting of Congress. On December 26, 1941, Winston Churchill addressed Congress, though in the smaller Senate Chamber rather than in the House, as so many members were out of town for Christmas break.

Churchill enjoyed the great advantage in December 1941 of having an American president who, after Pearl Harbor, was a clear and unambiguous ally in the war for the West. Netanyahu has no such advantage. So it might be hard for him to say, as Churchill did, that here in Washington he had “found an Olympian fortitude which, far from being based upon complacency, is only the mask of an inflexible purpose and the proof of a sure, well-grounded confidence in the final outcome.”

But Netanyahu won’t be speaking only to the Obama administration, which has, after all, made clear its lack of interest in listening to Netanyahu and whose allies won’t be there to listen. He’ll be speaking to the American people. 

So he can echo Churchill in appealing to them and warning that, in the struggle in which we’re engaged, “many disappointments and unpleasant surprises await us.” He can echo Churchill in expressing confidence that the West, led by the United States, will prevail. And he can look forward to a time when an Israeli prime minister will be able to say what Churchill could say in December 1941: “Lastly, if you will forgive me for saying it, to me the best tidings of all—the United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard.”

President Obama has not, and will not, cast away the scabbard. Though Netanyahu will of course focus, as he should, on the details of a possible Iran agreement—the speech will be a moment that points beyond the particulars of an Iran deal. It will be a moment that could cause us to reflect on what kind of people we are, and, with new leadership, what kind of deeds we might once again be capable of.

As it will be a moment of vindication for Zionism, the cause to which he and his family have dedicated their lives. In past episodes of Jews’ being consigned by the world to their fate, they were powerless to fight. And so the world (and not a few Jews) became accustomed to Jews’ playing the role of victim. On March 3, something remarkable and historic will happen. The prime minister of Israel, speaking on behalf of not only his country and millions of Jews, but on behalf of the West itself, will command the world’s attention as he declares his refusal to appease the enemies of Israel and the West. Both Jabotinsky and Churchill, both Ben-Gurion and Truman, would appreciate the moment.

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