Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why Netanyahu Should Address Congress Next Month

When it comes to politics, I've always thought that it's fair game for rabbis to weigh in. After all, I have a pulpit and a blog and I'm not afraid to use them. However, the caveat I have always made is that I am not a political pundit. I have no more expertise in U.S. foreign policy than the next guy who reads the Wall Street Journal every day and gets weekly email briefings from AIPAC, my undergrad degree in International Relations notwithstanding.

So, when the whole brouhaha broke about Rep. John Boehner inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress without the blessings of the Obama Administration, I kept my opinion to myself. It certainly didn't seem like a controversy. Boehner's the Speaker of the House and is entitled to invite foreign dignitaries to speak there as he sees fit. I certainly wouldn't want the invitation to Netanyahu to compromise the unique relationship (or as AIPAC calls it, "The Friendship") between the United States and Israel to be tarnished, but that shouldn't happen I reasoned. Not to mention, Netanyahu is an intelligent and charismatic speaker who could certainly enlighten members of Congress about the situation with Iran's nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (WikiCommons)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (WikiCommons)
The day after the news broke that President Obama was not happy about Boehner's invitation to Netanyahu, I had the privilege of hearing WSJ columnist Bret Stephens speak at Adat Shalom Synagogue at a Michigan AIPAC event. When asked about the Boehner-Netanyahu-Obama turbulence, Stephens reminded everyone in attendance about what we learned back in 5th grade about the U.S. structure of governance. The system of checks and balances is such that Congress doesn't have to ask permission from the Executive Branch before inviting a foreign head of state to speak to its members. That makes sense.

The upside to waiting to blog about this conflict was that I had the opportunity to read some keen perspectives. Two insightful posts written by rabbinic colleagues, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and Rabbi Irwin Kula, take opposing viewpoints as to whether Netanyahu should go forward with his plan to address Congress. The third viewpoint comes from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a known liberal who, like me, believes there's no good reason for Netanyahu to be silenced simply because the President doesn't see eye to eye with him.

Rabbi Kula, in a blog post on his website The Wisdom Daily titled "Netanyahu, Congress and the Importance of Fierce Debate," writes:

[T]he breach in protocol and the specter of personal insults ought not keep Netanyahu from speaking. A Netanyahu speech is necessary to finally compel a much-needed, genuine and fierce debate in this country - and in the Jewish community - about a number of critical issues. Only in vigorous, even painful debate between people with shared fates (but different world-views) do we arrive at the best possible positions.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu legitimately have different world-views that flow from very different contexts, biographies and interests. If Netanyahu thinks this agreement is existentially dangerous to the State of Israel, then he's justified to do "anything" he can (be it annoy the President, Democrats or American Jews) to oppose the agreement before it's finalized.
Rabbi Irwin Kula
Rabbi Irwin Kula

I haven't always agreed with Netanyahu, but I respect his fearlessness in shocking the American and American Jewish political system and catalyzing an important, potentially life-or-death, conversation. Opening up debate is always risky, for you never know how things will unfold, which is probably why so many mainstream Jewish leaders - on both the right and the left - have called on Netanyahu to cancel. But this is too important a moment not to trust in this: Only in vigorous, even painful debate between people with shared fates (but different world-views) do we arrive at the best possible positions enabling us to deal with the inevitable unintended consequences of our fraught decisions.

Rabbi Cosgrove sees it differently. In the Jerusalem Post, he argued:

How is it possible, we ask behind closed doors, that the prime minister does not understand the effect his actions are having on American Jewry? After all, Mr. Prime Minister, to side with you means to side with the person who has caused offense to my president. With the stakes so high, is this really the moment you want Israel's most vocal supporters to be rendered silent for fear of choosing between impossible options?
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove

If Prime Minister Netanyahu is as concerned about Iran as he purports to be then surely he and his advisors can find a way to state the case without alienating the leader of the free world. This is the time stand down, not double down. The urgent message regarding the Iranian threat will be less politicized and thus delivered far more effectively if spoken by the prime minister, whoever that may be, after the election, not before. As for President Obama, who coined the notion of “beer diplomacy,” maybe this is the moment to drink some of his own brew. Invite the prime minister over on his upcoming trip, not a state visit, no fanfare needed, and show the world, to paraphrase the rabbis, that in the place where there are no men, you are the man! The only beneficiary to the present political spectacle is Iran – the very country that we all agree sits at the heart of the problem. Support for Israel must be swiftly returned to its bipartisan status. The intended speech before Congress is wrongheaded and it is the responsibility of American Jewry to forewarn the prime minister of the consequences of his intended project.

Both Rabbi Kula and Rabbi Cosgrove make convincing arguments for their respective cases, but when it comes down to it I don't believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is simply coming to Washington to campaign for an election and I don't think he has to consent to the American President at all costs. Perhaps it is Dershowitz who states the case the best when he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "Whether one agrees or disagrees with Speaker John Boehner's decision to invite Mr. Netanyahu or Mr. Netanyahu's decision to accept, no legal scholar can dispute that Congress has the power to act independently of the president in matters of foreign policy. Whether any deal with Iran would technically constitute a treaty requiring Senate confirmation, it is certainly treaty-like in its impact. Moreover, the president can't implement the deal without some action or inaction by Congress."

Dershowitz concludes, as I do, that members of Congress who disagree with Netanyahu's decision to accept the speaking invitation can express that view, but they should at least listen when he comes to educate them about the serious threat of Iran. To fail to pay heed could have significant ramifications for Israel, America's longtime ally, partner and friend.

1 comment:

Rachel Kapen said...

Mostly because it's proximity to thenIsraeli election, I,that that Bibi Neutanyahu shouldn't come to,Congress at this time, like many counsel him both inmIsrael and here, still, if he decides to stick to his plan and come, I will be sure to listen to him and be proud of him and his passionate Defence of Israel.