Bibi Gets a Standing Ovation?

The last few days have been very dramatic, as far as American/Israeli relations are concerned. I am not going to spell out everything that has been happening in the wake of the AIPAC conference that took place this past weekend in Washington, DC. One need not look further than earlier posts on this blog to get at least most of the story. If you are interested in further reading, both Jeffrey Goldberg and Eliot Spitzer offered interesting analyses of the situation. (Those can be found here and here respectively.)

Rather, I am going to talk about Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s speech this morning to the American congress. I had the speech on and was listening intently. Bibi certainly made no new or groundbreaking comments. He followed his hits to a tee: Hamas bad, peace good, nuclear armed Iran unacceptable, recognition of a Jewish state required.

I was listening to the speech, and I honestly got a bit disoriented at one point. He could have given the exact same speech yesterday during his time at the AIPAC podium. But the content is not where my confusion arose. I was both listening to him speak and to the audience’s response to the “Best of Bibi,” and on several occasions I honestly had to remind myself that Bibi was now speaking to Congress, and not to AIPAC.

He was getting standing ovations, literally, every few minutes. He had to wait for applause to die down constantly. I swore I could even hear lighters being lit and swayed with during some of his slower numbers. Israel is solving the world’s problems,despite our own security dilemmas. The front rows were humming along and holding up signs with their favorite numbers still to come. The US has no better friend in the region than Israel. Israel wants all countries in the Middle East to be democratic. A young woman screams with delight and children start to get on top of their parent’s shoulders to get a better look at the show. Israel must always maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River. The crowd goes, “Errrr, huh?”

This last line, delivered almost verbatim, received a standing ovation from the United States Congress. A STANDING OVATION. The question of whether or not Israel will (or must) keep troops along the Jordan River is certainly a conversation that will have to eventually happen, in an honest and painful conversation, amongst the Israelis, the Palestinians and whoever manages to once again drag these two into the same room in the future. Israel, very legitimately, sees this as an issue of national security. The Palestinians also however will probably feel pretty strongly about not having access to their (eventual) Eastern border. Should there one day be a Palestinian state, those within it are probably going to expect to be able to travel to their neighbors (in this case Jordan) without having to go through an Israeli checkpoint. Not to mention the matter of the resources that come along with controlling a part of the only river in the region: the often ignored, but soon-to-be-more-valuable-than-oil resource that we waste so readily while doing our dishes because we are also watching American Idol or Wolf Blitzer.

The idea that Bibi should declare that this is a necessity in this manner, while not necessarily helpful (to coin a phrase from Hillary Clinton), is also not surprising. Bibi truly believes that these troops will need to remain in place to thwart an outside existential threat (Iran? A future Iraq?) from invading their state and finishing the job that the Nazis started. But for the American Congress to give this line a standing ovation? It is more than a bit strange. It would be akin to a room full of umpires, applauding as the manager of the Chicago Bulls states, emphatically, that they are going to wipe the floor with the Miami Heat. Even if they believe it, it is probably best that they not get up and cheer about it.

I would like to comment on one other element of Netanyahu’s speech. At one point, Bibi claimed that all six Israeli Prime Minister’s since Oslo, him included, have been prepared to see a Palestinian state neighboring Israel. (See full transcript of the speech here.) He then asked why, then, it had not yet happened. His answer: “so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.”

The problem with this argument is that it is not true. If it is taken at face value, it really does not even make sense. Since Oslo, there has never been a time when the Palestinians were asked to “recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” This new addenda to the conversation was added by Bibi himself only in the last year or so. Before that, no one has asked anyone interested in making peace with Israel to recognize the Jewish state as “a Jewish state.” It was not asked of Egypt or Jordan while peace plans were being drawn up. When Truman called Israel to welcome it to the international community, eleven minutes after Israel declared statehood in May of 1948, David Ben-Gurion did not say, “well thanks for your welcoming phone call, but I am going to have to insist that you now recognize Israel not only as a free and sovereign state, but as a Jewish one as well.”

Whether or not Israel is a Jewish state is up to Israel. To imply otherwise is to weaken it. If the Palestinians have a say in whether or not Israel is a Jewish state, then should the UN? What if they say that Israel can exist, but only as a religiously open, bi-national state for the Jews and the Palestinians? Netanyahu would be more than happy to walk away from the institution where he spent so many of his formative years. It weakens Israel to allow ANYONE outside of its borders to dictate what kind of state it can, or must, be. Only Israel can decide that.

Demanding Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is problematic on several fronts. Not the least of these is that Abbas sees over a million of his own people (upwards of 1 in 6 Israelis) living as citizens of Israel proper. Would Israel ever recognize Turkey as a Muslim nation? Of course not! What would that say for the nearly 18,000 Jews who still today call Turkey home? Likewise Syria, Iran, Egypt, Morocco and so on.

One of the rights of statehood is each nation’s ability to define itself. When that nation demands others recognize those self-imposed definitions, it is a slippery slope. How long before that self-imposed definition is gone and all that is left is how the world sees you? Israel has many reasons to be wary of negotiations. Many legitimate and difficult reasons. The lack of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is simply not one. Since Oslo, and throughout six Israeli Prime Ministers, it was not one. And it is still not one today, no matter how much Bibi wishes it were so.

Follow me on twitter @jlemonsk