Netanyahu’s Speech and Congressional Democrats’ Embrace of Extremism

As Israeli opposition parties, peace and human rights activists, and editorialists denounced their prime minister’s intransigence in the face of President Barack Obama’s peace initiative, Congressional Democrats here in the United States have instead joined their Republican counterparts in lining up to support the right-wing Israeli leader’s defiance. As Benyamin Netanyahu arrogantly rejected Obama’s modest parameters for a peace settlement in a May 20 speech before a joint session of Congress – a rare honor for a foreign leader – Democrats joined Republicans in giving him no less than 29 standing ovations, more than were given to Obama during his State of the Union Speech earlier this year.

Mitchell Plitnick of Jewish Voice for Peace, in the immediate aftermath of Netanyahu’s speech, observed how “The United States itself has never been as shameless in its blind support” for the Israeli right, placing support for the Likud leader, “over the interests of justice and human rights and even its own self-interest.”

In an apparent challenge to her president, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) told Netanyahu, in response to his harsh retort to Obama, “I think it’s clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace.” Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) rebuked President Obama by stating, “No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or about anything else,” and that terms for peace talks, “will not be set through speeches.” As former president Jimmy Carter observed in an op-ed in The New York Times, in embracing Netanyahu’s position, the current Democratic leadership is not only rejecting the current US president, but previous agreements involving the Israelis and longstanding positions taken by the United Nations (UN) and previous administrations.

Ironically, Palestinians and most other international observers believed Obama did not go nearly far enough in challenging Netanyahu’s colonization and annexation of occupied Palestinian territories. He did not call for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian West Bank – which the Israelis invaded in June 1967 war and which is legally recognized as non-self-governing territories under belligerent occupation – only that the pre-1967 borders be the starting point of negotiations. Obama assumes Israel should be allowed to annex parts of the West Bank with large concentrations of Israeli settlers who moved into the occupied territory in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice. (In return for allowing Israel to annex these illegal settlements, Obama called on Israel to swap Israeli land, something that Netanyahu has rejected.) In addition, while Jewish West Jerusalem remaining part of Israel was a given, Obama insisted that Arab East Jerusalem – the largest Palestinian city and center of Palestine’s cultural, religious, commercial and educational institutions – was subjected to negotiations. Obama defended Israel’s right to “self-defense,” but insisted the Palestinian state be demilitarized. Indeed, he rejected Palestinian independence except under conditions acceptable to their Israeli occupiers. He even questioned whether Israel should negotiate with the Fatah-led Palestine Authority if it included Hamas in its ruling coalition because the Islamist group refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist even as it insisted the Palestinians negotiate with the Israeli government despite the fact that some parties in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition refuse to recognize Palestine’s right to exist.

To an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress, however, Obama was simply not anti-Palestinian enough.


As the noted political scientist and American Interest editor Walter Russell Mead observed, “Netanyahu’s deadly, devastating speech to Congress in which he eviscerated President Obama’s foreign policy to prolonged and repeated standing ovations by members of both parties may have been the single most stunning and effective public rebuke to an American president a foreign leader has ever delivered … demonstrating to the whole world that the Prime Minister of Israel has substantially more support in both the House and the Senate than the President of the United States.”

Ironically, most Israelis think otherwise. Polls show that 57 percent of Israelis supported Obama’s speech and are critical of the hardline anti-peace line of Netanyahu that Pelosi, Reid and other Congressional leaders find so appealing. The Israeli peace group Gush Shalom issued a statement saying, “The speech of PM Netanyahu in the US Congress was composed of dozens of colorful gimmicks and empty clichés, talk of a peace which he does not intend to conclude and of a fictional Palestinian state which he has no intention of seeing become reality,” adding, “The extremist position that Netanyahu presented … constitutes a final closing of the door to renewed negotiations and an embarkation on a course of collision with the Palestinians and the entire world.”

Leading Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar observed in Haaretz that, “the strength of the applause bears no relation to the genuine interests of the State of Israel.” And Gideon Levy, writing in the same Israeli newspaper and documenting the numerous “lies and illusions” in Netanyahu’s speech, observed, “Did American’s elected representatives know that they were cheering for the death of possibility? If America loved it, we’re in big trouble.”

Debra DeLee, president of the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now, observed that Netanyahu’s speech, “represents a step backward, away from the peace that Israelis and Palestinians yearn for and deserve” and that, “rather than laying out his promised new vision of peace, Netanyahu stayed mainly on the well-worn path of grandstanding, blame-laying, and fear-mongering.” DeLee added that the rightist prime minister’s preconditions for negotiations were unrealistic and are an, “anathema to reviving negotiations and to achieving real peace and security for Israel.”

Similarly, Harvard political scientist Steve Walt observed how these members of Congress, “aren’t genuine friends of Israel, because every burst of applause was another nail in the coffin of the Zionist dream.”

As a result, to claim that Congress is “too pro-Israel” is simply inaccurate. As Obama himself has observed, the current Israeli policy so enthusiastically embraced by Congress is unsustainable and contrary to Israel’s genuine security interests.

Support for Netanyahu, then, is not support for Israel. It is support for an extreme and dangerous kind of militarism. As James Fallows of The Atlantic put it so accurately, Netanyahu is the “Dick Cheney of Israel,” characterizing the former vice president as someone who, “mistook short-term intransigence for long-term strategic wisdom, seemed blind and tone-deaf to the ‘moral’ and ‘soft power’ components of influence, profited from a polarized and fearful political climate, and attempted to command rather than earn support from allies and potential adversaries.” In giving Netanyahu more standing ovations than their own president, Congressional Democrats have joined Republicans in effectively endorsing a Dick Cheney approach to the Middle East.

Not only is it harmful for Israel, but it is also harmful to US interests. Even the staunchly pro-Israel pundit Andrew Sullivan noted how Netanyahu’s view, shared by Congress, is essentially one in which, “the US is supposed to sacrifice its broader goals of reconciliation with an emergent democratic Arab world, potentially jeopardize its relations with a democratic Egypt, isolate itself from every other ally and identify the US permanently with a state that, in its current configuration and with its current behavior, deepens and inflames the global conflict with Jihadist Islam.” Yet both Republicans and Democrats are so blinded by their militarist ideology that they are not only willing to sacrifice the interests of Palestinians – the most immediate victims of Netanyahu’s policies – but Israel and the United States as well.

As will be examined below, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Netanyahu’s speech by Congressional Democrats raises serious questions about whether those who oppose a Cheney-style foreign policy should continue to support the Democratic Party. First, though, it bears examination as to what specifically House and Senate Democrats were joining their Republican counterparts in cheering about.

What Congress Supported

The significance of the bipartisan rebuke of Obama and the broad consensus of the international community is evident in the specific lines spoken by Netanyahu that received the most enthusiastic applause.

Netanyahu got his biggest ovations when he defied Obama’s suggestion that the 1967 borders be the basis of negotiations and reiterated his pledge to never end the Israeli occupation of Arab East Jerusalem. A whole series of UN Security Council resolutions underscores that Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem is illegal and should be considered “null and void,” a decision reiterated in a near-unanimous decision of the International Court of Justice. Similarly, UN Security Council resolution 242 – long considered the basis for peace by both Democratic and Republican administrations – reiterates the longstanding international legal principle regarding, “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force.”

This was irrelevant to the US Congress, the vast majority of whom gave Netanyahu a particularly raucous standing ovation when he denied Israeli forces and settlers on the West Bank were foreign occupiers. They cheered when he specifically insisted that Israeli occupation forces would remain as far east as the Jordan Valley. They cheered further when he justified his insistence that the West Bank was Jewish land because it was, “the land of our forefathers … , to which Abraham brought the idea of one god [and] where David set out to confront Goliath.” That both Democrats and Republicans would give a standing ovation to an assertion that particular scriptural passages trump international law is indicative of just how much influence right-wing fundamentalists now have over both political parties.

Netanyahu also received a standing ovation when he defended his plans for illegally annexing conquered Palestinian territory by claiming the 1967 borders were “indefensible.” Apparently, the overwhelming majority of Congress was ignorant of the fact that Israel defended those borders quite successfully in two wars, that the military balance between Israel and its neighbors is far more favorable for Israel than it was back then, and that Obama explicitly insisted that any new Palestinian state be demilitarized. Furthermore, the 1967 borders are far more defensible than the scattered settlements and military outposts in the West Bank that Netanyahu, with Congressional support, insists on illegally incorporating into Israel.

The bipartisan audience cheered further when Netanyahu denounced any role for the UN in determining a settlement, insisting that Israel alone, “will be very firm on where we put the border.” In short, Congress believes that the fate of Palestine should not rest on the Palestinians, on international law or the United States, but on the occupying power alone.

There was also raucous applause when Netanyahu added new conditions to peace with the Palestinians, specifically that they explicitly recognize Israel as a “Jewish” state, a precondition that was not demanded of Jordan or Egypt in their peace treaties with Israel. Indeed, virtually no international agreement has ever required one party to explicitly endorse the ideological identity of a state, only the legitimacy of its government, which the Palestinians have already done. (As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas put it, “It is not my job to give a description of the state.”) Former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasir Arafat unilaterally recognized Israel in 1988, which was codified by the PLO in the 1993 Oslo Accords, which shortly thereafter removed references from its charter delegitimizing Israel. As Abbas recently reiterated, “Our position is that we recognize Israel. We fully believe in the two-state solution – a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and the state of Israel, living next to each other in peace and security.” Yet Netanyahu received perhaps the most extended applause of his speech when he insisted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state; it’s always been about the existence of the Jewish state.”

One of the most telling examples of the mindset of the bipartisan supermajority came when Israeli-American peace activist Rae Abileah, sitting in the visitor’s gallery, began shouting, “Equal rights of Palestinians.” Right-wing supporters of the Israeli prime minister began attacking her, until Capitol police rescued her and took her to a hospital, where her injuries were determined to be serious enough to require an overnight stay. After initially booing her for interrupting the speaker, virtually the entire House floor rose to its feet cheering while she was being manhandled and silenced. Videos show those who could see that section of the gallery were looking directly at the attack clapping and cheering, apparently well aware of what was happening, indicating how Congress believes such dissident voices should be treated.

US Liberals Keep Supporting the Israeli Right

As indicative in the reaction of Congressional Democrats to Netanyahu’s speech, it is becoming increasing obvious that one cannot profess to support human rights and international law – much less Middle East peace – and support the Democratic Party as well. In comparison to other political parties in industrialized democracies on these core issues, the Democrats are well to the right of not only socialist and liberal parties, but almost all of the conservative parties as well. Indeed, the only Western political parties that are as right-wing as the Democratic Party regarding these principles and their application to the Middle East are the US Republicans and Europe’s small, far-right, xenophobic anti-Muslim parties. In short, the Democratic Party represents a right-wing fringe.

It is important to note that there are a couple of dozen progressive Democratic House members who were not cheering Netanyahu, who do care about human rights and international law, who are aligned with Israeli progressives and moderates, and who deserve support. They are a small minority of the nearly 250 Democrats in Congress, however, and are not represented in the party leadership.

It is easy to try to blame right-wing pro-Likud groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but this would be misleading. The vast majority of pro-Likud Democrats are in safe political districts, and there would be little political consequence of rejecting Netanyahu’s extremism and instead supporting Israeli moderates.(For example, every Democrat who refused to support a 2006 resolution defending Israel’s devastating war on Lebanon was re-elected by a larger margin that November than they had been two years earlier.) Similarly, the overwhelming majority of American Jews are far closer to Obama’s position than that of Netanyahu and Congress.

The problem is that most Congressional Democrats appear to sincerely embrace this right-wing militaristic worldview and know they can get away with it because “progressive” organizations and political action committees (PACs) will support them anyway. This contrasts with the 1980’s, when their counterparts with comparable positions on Central America were disparaged as “death-squad Democrats” and denied such support.

Things are different today, however. For example, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), who takes perhaps the most pro-Likud position of any Democratic senator and was among the first on her feet cheering Netanyahu, was named “Progressive Hero of 2010” by the liberal group Democracy for America. Could one imagine a senator in the 1980’s cheering Roberto D’Aubuisson or a similar right-wing wing US Central American ally and still getting such recognition?

MoveOn, which has one of the largest PACs of any group supporting Democratic candidates, has also endorsed and raised money for House and Senate members who cheered the rightist Israeli leader and have endorsed his policies, and has also falsely labeled them as “progressive.”

Congressional Democrats get away with such supporting right-wing governments like Israel because groups like MoveOn and Democracy for America keep misleading progressive voters into thinking that people who support Netanyahu are progressives as well, and because people who profess to care about peace and human rights keep supporting these groups and their candidates. This is not to say that one should never vote for a right-wing Democrat to prevent an even further right-wing Republican from being elected. However, falsely claiming they are progressive when they support a Cheney-style foreign policy and making them think there are no political consequences for that support makes it virtually impossible to replace them with people who do care about human rights and international law or to force them to move away from their right-wing positions.

There will always be Democrats who will sell out to corporate interests and compromise. However, when it comes to such blatant affronts to international legal norms as those exemplified by Netanyahu’s May 20 speech, it is time to draw the line. It is time to make it clear to Congressional Democrats that if they continue to oppose international law and human rights by supporting Netanyahu, they will lose the support of voters who do. It’s time to make clear to MoveOn, Democracy for America and other groups who endorse such candidates that they will not receive money or other support until they make human rights and international law a criteria for endorsement.

If enough people do that, AIPAC will no longer be a factor, and right-wing foreign leaders like Netanyahu will no longer get standing ovations from Democrats.