This article was first published in The Huffington Post on 3rd March 2015.
One of the defining precepts of the American Republic from its earliest days to today has been that the president of the United States represents the country in its dealings with the world. It is a view which the Supreme Court unambiguously endorsed in 1936 in United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp:
“In this vast external realm, with its important, complicated, delicate and manifold problems, the President alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation. He makes treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; but he alone negotiates. Into the field of negotiation the Senate cannot intrude, and Congress itself is powerless to invade it. As Marshall said in his great argument of March 7, 1800, in the House of Representatives, ‘The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations.'”
This consensus, respected by both parties for much of American history, is why John Boehner’s sly decision to offer Benjamin Netanyahu a congressional platform to attack President Obama’s negotiations with Iran may represent a watershed moment both for the Republican Party and American support for Israel. It’s unclear whether the invitation says more about Republicans’ confusion about who precisely they’ve been sent to Washington to represent, or more about the weakening influence of the conservative pro-Israel group AIPAC as pro-peace, pro-Israel groups like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace have come on the scene. What seems clear is that when even Chris Wallace of Fox News is calling the Netanyahu-Boehner manoeuvre behind President Obama’s back “wicked,” then something has gone very wrong with the Republican sense of the national interest.
Netanyahu’s speech may be evidence of hubris run amok on his part, but it is also a vivid illustration of the pervasive and destructive rise of partisanship in American politics over the last few decades. Even as the centre ground vanished on contentious domestic issues, there was at least the idea that the country should speak with one voice on foreign policy. Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu has taken a sledgehammer to that consensus.
Many of the founders including Madison and Washington viewed factional interests as one of the main threats to the growing American nation. In Federalist 10, Madison defined faction as:
“a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
For George Washington, the great fear would be what happened if the factions that animated Madison’s concerns became intermingled with foreign influence, a theme which dominated the President’s Farewell Address in 1796. Washington’s warning of the dangers to the United States from the combination of foreign entanglements and factional interests seems more relevant than ever:
“Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. […] And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.”
A clearer diagnosis of the Republican attachment to Netanyahu would be hard to find. Especially pernicious is the narcissistic obsession to be ‘seen’ to be pro-Israel at all costs. Concerned more with getting on the good side of AIPAC, lawmakers ignore the long-term interests of Israel, which are certainly not served by its land grab on the West Bank that have all but destroyed any possibility of a two state solution including a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
The Republican-Bibi lovefest stands in stark contrast to the short shrift given to the Prime Minister by the chief rabbis of France and Denmark after his recent calls for European Jews to emigrate to Israel. Almost unnoticed is that Netanyahu’s recent message to Jews in European countries that they should come to Israel where they’ll be safe seems irreconcilably at odds with his insistence that the Jewish state is facing an existential threat from Iran. Here, Netanyahu’s use of the “existential” label has been undermined by senior former Israeli defence and security officials. Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli national security adviser, argues that the Iranians are “probably rational actors,” while the former head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, argues that the lack of a peace agreement with the Palestinians is more of an existential threat than Iran’s nuclear programme.
Claims by Netanyahu and others that just one Iranian nuclear bomb would be enough to destroy a “small country” like Israel ignore the reality that such a bomb would also wipe out the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which is almost as sacred to Muslims as Mecca and Medina. Just why the Islamic Republic of Iran would want to annihilate one of the holiest sites in Islam along with millions of Palestinians, incurring the wrath of every Muslim in the world is unclear.
Yet this is the apocalyptic premise that Netanyahu will conjure up before Congress in a hubris-filled polemic directed against the President’s negotiations with Iran and the foreign policy of the United States. Congressman Steve Cohen believes that “providing a forum of such immense prestige and power to the leader of another country who is opposing our nation’s foreign policy is beyond the pale.”
What makes the Republican decision to invite Netanyahu perhaps even more irresponsible than his decision to accept it, is that if President Obama’s diplomatic negotiations with Iran fail, then Washington and Tehran may be on “a path to war,” as the writer Peter Beinart sees it. Would those Republican lawmakers that are funded by AIPAC to support the interests of a foreign state, ever be called to account if American lives end up being sacrificed because of the hyperbolic assertions of Benjamin Netanyahu?
More serious even than Republicans putting the interests of Israel before their own constituents, is the mistake of equating Israel’s interests with the one figure of Benjamin Netanyahu and the one party of Likud. According Netanyahu a party political platform to address voters shortly before Israel goes to the polls in a tight election illustrates the myopia of the GOP in seeing Israel only through Bibi-tinted spectacles. It is a condition that George Washington warned about:
“Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.”
As Republicans prepare to do homage to Netanyahu at the heart of American democracy in order to sabotage the foreign policy negotiations of the current American president, cooler Republican heads might just wish to consider the counsel of its first president.
Image by SpeakerBoehner