Image (above): Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther, oil painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1660. Netanyahu drew on the story of Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia, in his speech to the U.S. Congress.
The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, addressed a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. This time, he was not there in connection with a diplomatic visit, but at the invitation of Speaker of the House John Boehner. The White House was not consulted. Some members of the Democratic Party declined to attend the speech in protest. And a number of their constituents struggled to understand why.
This is the leader of Israel, right? Our greatest Mideast ally, right? So what’s the problem?
So Netanyahu talked trash about Iran and the nuclear talks. So what? Iran is our avowed enemy, isn’t that right?
Here’s what I have to say:
Everyone agrees that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. The disagreement is about how to ensure Iran doesn’t build nukes, now or in the future. Diplomacy with Iran is working. Netanyahu knows this, but he doesn’t want to accept it.
I’m convinced the prime minister’s speech had two purposes, both of which he specifically denied:
- To scuttle nuclear arms talks and worsen relations between the U.S. and Iran
- To raise his profile with Israeli voters less than two weeks before national elections
The speech was also a radical move by congressional Republicans. Congress never invites a foreign leader to speak in the Capitol without consulting the president. In fact, whenever a Republican is in the White House, congressional Republicans typically call for Congress to avoid meddling in foreign policy like “535 Secretaries of State.” Yet here we have an invitation to a foreign leader to address Congress in order to contradict a major U.S. diplomatic policy. (And now there are bills before Congress to tamper with the Constitution’s separation of powers by seizing some of the executive’s power to negotiate a treaty with Iran. So much for strict constructionism. We really are about to have 535 Secretaries of State.)
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was a political stunt, and that’s why he kept insisting it wasn’t. Just read the post-game analysis in Israel. It’s all about the impact on N’s re-election chances on March 17.
Watch out for Persia
What about N’s advice on Iran policy? He uses a Bible story from the Book of Esther to assert that Iran (or “Persia”) is eternally dedicated to annihilating the Jews. But Esther doesn’t support that claim. N gave us a dumbed-down version of the book. (Read it for yourself if you don’t believe me. Or read the four-page summary at Wikipedia.)
Similarly, his account of modern Iranian history was simplistic and sensationalized, with phrases like “charging into the void” and “tentacles of terror.” It’s the kind of thing you find in pulp thrillers about terrorist plots.
So yes, the speech was an insult to the intelligence of his audience. The exception? Only those who see all Muslims as terrorists or fascists, and who agree with al-Qaeda and ISIS that there should be an all-out war between the West and the majority-Muslim countries.
The Bible tells me so
Since N quoted the Bible, let’s look a little deeper into the biblical record. The most prominent Iranian in the Bible is Cyrus, the Persian king who liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity, protected them as they built the Second Temple at Jerusalem, and returned the precious objects that Babylonians had looted from the temple many years before. (See Ezra 1 and Isaiah 45, where Cyrus of Persia is called the Lord’s “anointed one.”) Later, King Darius I of Persia used Cyrus’s decree to suppress opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple. (Ezra 6)
How is this evidence of a national will to annihilate the Jews? You might address that question to some of the Persian Jews who have lived in Iran for more than 3,000 years. At times they have been treated almost as badly as Jews living in Christian Europe, but they were never subjected to genocide. The current government protects their civil and religious rights, and synagogue attendance is up. We in the West, with our history of ghettos and death camps, are in no position to criticize.
The nuclear talks
N also misrepresented the nuclear talks. Let’s be plain: He lied.
As with Russian nuclear talks, you don’t have to trust your rival in order to know whether they are keeping their word. There is no nuclear weapons program in Iran, and the talks with Iran over its centrifuges and uranium enrichment are preventing the development of weapons capability. We know this. We are inspecting every day. Netanyahu knows it too, but he refuses to accept it. So he used his podium in the U.S. Capitol to lie about the talks and to scare us. I’m sure his claim that Iran controls “four Arab capitals” got some laughs in the Mideast, where both Arabs and Israelis know better.
Netanyahu was counting on Americans’ ignorance of the region, prejudice against Muslims, and willingness to be frightened. He wants us to return to our prior policy of tough talk and sanctions, which caused Iran to holler back and deny access to its nuclear facilities (just as we would do if a foreign power threatened and sanctioned us). He wants tension, not agreement. He wants an isolated Iran that elects extremist leaders. He wants the U.S. to let Israel, alone, determine our Mideast policy. He wouldn’t mind having Americans fight a war in Israel’s interest.
So why did our members of Congress applaud N so enthusiastically?
First, the many standing ovations were pretty clear evidence of the power of money in politics. I’m talking about the handful of billionaires who fund lobbyists, think tanks, dark-money funds, and astroturf operations that push right-wing Israeli views along with Islamophobe propaganda. Our broken campaign finance rules give way too much influence to rich egotists.
And please note, I am NOT promoting the crude stereotypes that associate Jews with money, or that pretend that Jews control global finance. That’s B.S. Not all these billionaires are Jews, but their ideology drowns out the opinion of most American Jews, a majority of whom support diplomacy with Iran.
The Muslims are coming!
Second, Republicans are playing a dangerous game of encouraging the belief that the presidency has been hijacked by a Muslim. After more than a decade of Islamophobe propaganda, a majority of Republicans, and perhaps a plurality of Americans, now believe that “deep down” the president is a Muslim. Never mind what Obama says about his Christian faith; never mind that he was once attacked for his choice of Christian preacher. Now he’s a Muslim, and Muslims are liars.
I believe this is why the House Speaker calculated he could get away with inviting a foreign leader in defiance of the president. He knows that most of his base believes the president is some kind of foreign agent. So insulting the president is standing up for America, amirite?
Furthermore, Islam is not a proper religion but an enemy ideology. The First Amendment does not apply. Make them convert, lock them up, kick them out, or kill them before they kill us: This kind of fringe bigotry is becoming dangerously mainstream. President Bush and Sen. McCain stood against this bigotry. But current Republican leaders are trying to ride the wave.
Muslims in the U.S. have now faced as many threats, bombings, and murder as American Jews did in the bad old days. Yet still the talk is all about “creeping sharia” and the Islamic threat to our freedoms. Our great-grandchildren will look back with shame and regret.
Iran is not an outpost of hell. It’s a country. America could seriously use some adults right about now. That’s why I’m asking the three men who represent me in Congress to support diplomacy with Iran.
- Full text of Netanyahu’s speech
- Juan Cole: The true purpose of Netanyahu’s trip to Washington
- What Netanyahu got wrong, a first response from the Friends Committee on National Legislation
- Joe Conason reminds everyone of Netanyahu’s enthusiastic support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
- Bloomberg News: What sanctions have done to Iran’s economy