from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

About That Netanyahu Invitation to Address Congress

February 22, 2017
7:00 am (EST)

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 24, 2011. (Molly Riley/Courtesy: Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 24, 2011. (Molly Riley/Courtesy: Reuters)

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last addressed a joint session of Congress in 2011. At that time Walter Russell Mead wrote a remarkable comment on the speech Netanyahu made and the reception he received. Mead’s comment, in his blog at The American Interest, included this passage:

Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.

It means more. The existence of Israel means that the God of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race. For many American Christians who are nothing like fundamentalists, the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted.

Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-American and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don’t ’get’ Israel don’t ’get’ America and don’t ’get’ God.

Obama administration officials who are trying to argue that Netanyahu’s invitation from Speaker Boehner is outrageous and political (just a few days after the president got British prime minister Cameron to lobby Congress directly) will lose the argument. Iran’s nuclear program is one of the most significant national security issues we face and an even larger issue for Israel, and Israel is one of this country’s closest allies. The bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu, which has included personal attacks on Netanyahu by the White House staff, should not be allowed to color what the Speaker does. I think it’s fine that Obama will not see Netanyahu so close to the Israeli election; that’s a good practice in general and avoids the inference of U.S. intervention in a foreign electoral contest. (Of course, in this case no Israeli over the age of five can possibly have any doubt that Obama wants to see Netanyahu lose his job.) Moreover, it avoids the painful spectacle of Obama and Netanyahu making believe they like each other and have enjoyed seeing each other again.

But the White House’s whining about Boehner’s invitation is amateurish, and for the reasons Mead explained it will persuade few Americans beyond the Beltway. Given the situation in the Middle East and the state of nuclear negotiations with Iran (where the United States has abandoned almost every red line it ever set), it’s no wonder Obama would like to silence Netanyahu--and no wonder that Netanyahu wants to speak about Iran and that the Speaker wants to hear him.