Amonth before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu goes to Washington to deliver his much-anticipated speech to a joint session of Congress, it is instructive – and fascinating – re-reading the speech he gave to that same august body 15 years ago, on July 10, 1996.
Then, as now, he was invited by a Republican speaker of the House (Newt Gingrich) serving during the tenure of a Democratic president (Bill Clinton). Then, as now, some questioned the tactical wisdom of the prime minister addressing the Congress, and whether this was an attempt to bypass the president and take Israel’s case to the most supportive branch of the US political system – the legislative branch. Then, as now, there were those who said this could boomerang and harm future interpersonal relations with the president. (In the Clinton case, it did.)
It is telling that at last week’s Likud gathering, where Netanyahu announced that he had been invited by House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress, he said the invitation “symbolizes the strong alliance between the American people, the American Congress and the American administration with Israel and the Jewish people.”
A speech to Congress is, indeed, highly symbolic. That chamber
represents the American people, and the message that comes across from
an ovation for the prime minister there is that we, the people, support
How much more comfortable will it be for Netanyahu to lay down the
principles of his policy to a body that is highly supportive and
sympathetic, rather than to US President Barack Obama and a circle of
critical advisers inside the Oval Office. But will this antagonize the
An article in Thursday’s New York Times
indicates it might, saying that “a Republican invitation for Israel’s
Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to address Congress next month is
highlighting the tensions between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu and
has kicked off a bizarre diplomatic race over who will be the first to
lay out a new proposal to reopen the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace
According to this piece, the White House has been debating for three
months whether Obama should propose a new peace plan, and Netanyahu has
been considering whether to “preempt” the White House with his own
“The political gamesmanship between the two men illustrates how the
calculation in the Middle East has changed for a variety of reasons,
including the political upheaval in the Arab world. But it also shows
the lack of trust and what some officials say is personal animosity
between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu,” states the article.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that the president
would give a major policy address in the near future on the Middle East
and North Africa. Part of that speech will likely deal with the
diplomatic process here. It is not clear who will deliver the first
speech, though officials in the Prime Minister’s Office say that the two
men are “well coordinated.” The two spoke before Pessah on Monday, and
are expected to speak again in the coming days.
According to officials in Netanyahu’s office, the prime minister is
spending much of the holiday working on his speech. Chances are that he,
too, reread what he said back then.
Parts of that speech he could cut and paste and deliver again word for
word – proof that in our part of the world, the more things change, the
more they stay the same.
Parts of that speech were almost prophetic, predicting future
developments uncannily well. And parts of the speech he won’t, or can’t,
say today – an indication of the road he has traveled since he became
prime minister the first time, 15 short years ago.
What follows is an analysis of that speech with an eye on the upcoming
one, dividing it into three categories: “Same old,” “Prescient,” and
“Wow, did Netanyahu really say that?” Same old “It is a tribute to the
unshakable fact that the unique relationship between Israel and the
United States transcends politics and parties, governments and
diplomacy. It is a relationship between two peoples who share a total
commitment to the spirit of democracy, and infinite dedication to
These types of lines, or a variation of them, are sure to show up in his upcoming address.
After experiencing a rocky relationship with the current administration,
Netanyahu will want to underline that the ties between the two
countries are far deeper and longer-lasting than any one president or
“The mandate we have received from the people of Israel is to continue
the search for an end to wars and an end to grief. I promise you: We are
going to live up to this mandate. We will continue the quest for peace,
and, to this end, we are ready to resume negotiations with the
Palestinian Authority on the implementation of our Interim Agreement.”
Now, as then, Netanyahu is trying to figure out how to resume negotiations with the Palestinians.
“So, what we are saying here today is as simple as it is elementary.
Peace means the absence of violence. Peace means not fearing for your
children every time they board a bus. Peace means walking the streets of
your town without the fearful shriek of Katyusha rockets overhead...
peace without personal safety is a contradiction in terms. It is a hoax. It will not stand.”
Substitute the words Kassams, Grads and mortar shells for Katyusha rockets, and these words are as true now as they were then.
“... Peace must be based on three pillars, the three pillars of peace. Security is the first pillar.
There is no substitute for it. To succeed, the quest for peace must be accompanied by a quest for security.”
Netanyahu will most assuredly talk about security as the main pillar of
peace during his upcoming speech. He likes talking about pillars of
peace, but – with the exception of security – the pillars in his mind
have changed a bit. While 15 years ago he spoke of three pillars to
Congress – the other two being reciprocity and “democracy and human
rights” – in recent months, his other two pillars are Palestinian
recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and
Prescient “We have no quarrel with them [Israel’s neighbors] which
cannot be resolved by peaceful means. Nor, I must say, do we have a
quarrel with Islam. We reject the thesis of an inevitable clash of
civilizations. We do not subscribe to the idea that Islam has replaced
Communism as the new rival of the West, because our conflict is
It is with those militant fanatics who pervert the central tenets of a great faith towards violence and world domination.”
Six years before 9/11, Netanyahu was already making clear that the
battle of our times was not against Islam – the “clash of civilizations”
idea that gained even greater currency after the fall of the World
Trade Center towers – but with a particular, radical brand of Islamic
teaching. This theme is one Obama himself has picked up and run with on
“For too long, the standards of peace used throughout the world have not
been applied to the Middle East. Violence and despotism have been
excused and not challenged. Respect for human freedoms has not been on
“... I don’t think we should accept the idea that the Middle East is the
latest, or the last, isolated sanctuary that will be democracy-free for
all time except for the presence of Israel.
“I realize that this is a process. It may be a long-term process. But I think we should begin it.
It is time for the states of the Middle East to put the issues of human rights and democratization on their agenda.”
Had people listened then, rather than thinking Netanyahu was trying to
deflect attention from the Palestinian issue, the socalled Arab Spring
could have come 15 years earlier.
“The most dangerous of these [despotic] regimes [in the region] is Iran,
that has wed a cruel despotism to a fanatic militancy. If this regime,
or its despotic neighbor Iraq, were to acquire nuclear weapons, this
could presage catastrophic consequences, not only for my country, and
not only for the Middle East, but for all mankind.
“I believe the international community must reinvigorate its efforts to
isolate these regimes, and prevent them from acquiring atomic power...
Europe and the countries of Asia must be made to understand that it is
folly, nothing short of folly, to pursue short-time material gain while
creating a long-term existential danger for all of us... We have to act –
responsibly, in a united front, internationally. This is not a slogan.
This is not over-dramatization. This is the life of our children and our
Netanyahu’s comments came at a time when few in the world were taking
seriously the possibility of a nuclear Iran. His words were both
prescient, and – unfortunately – as relevant now as they were then. He
will undoubtedly speak about Iran again to Congress, but will be
speaking as one whose words proved true. His message, a decade and a
half later, will fundamentally still be the same.
Wow, did Netanyahu say that? “We are ready to engage Syria and Lebanon in meaningful negotiations.”
With Syria now in the midst of the Arab tornado, a throw-away line such
as this loses all meaning. Who is Israel to engage with in Syria? Will
President Bashar Assad still be standing a month from now? And what will
all this do to Lebanon? “We cannot, and I might say we dare not, forget
that more men, women and children have lost their lives to terrorist
attacks in the last three years, than in the entire previous decade.”
In the three years to which Netanyahu referred – 1994-1996, after the
Oslo agreement – 243 people were killed in Israel by terrorism. Those
figures pale in comparison to the number of victims during the second
intifada. During the three-year period at the height of the intifada,
2001-2003, some 865 people were killed by terror attacks.
“Since 1967, under Israeli sovereignty, united Jerusalem has, for the
first time in two thousand years, become the city of peace... There have
been efforts to redivide this city by those who claim that peace can
come through division – that it can be secured through multiple
sovereignties, multiple laws and multiple police forces. This is a
groundless and dangerous assumption, which impels me to declare today:
There will never be such a re-division of Jerusalem. Never.
“We shall not allow a Berlin Wall to be erected inside Jerusalem. We
will not drive out anyone, but neither shall we be driven out of any
quarter, any neighborhood, any street of our eternal capital.”
Much has changed since those words were uttered, most significantly
Obama’s call for a total settlement halt, including in neighborhoods in
Jerusalem – such as Gilo, Ramat Shlomo, and Neveh Ya’acov – over the
Green Line. Netanyahu may pledge allegiance to the capital during his
speech, but it is unlikely that as unequivocal a statement as this will
Consider, for instance, that Housing and Construction Minister Ariel
Attias said in an interview this week with the haredi weekly Mishpacha
that the construction of some 2,500 units in Jerusalem neighborhoods
beyond the Green Line were being held up because of political reasons.
“We will not uproot anyone, nor shall we be uprooted. We shall insist on
the right of Jews to live anywhere in the Land, just as we insist on
this right for Jews in any other place in the world.”
Or not. Regarding not uprooting Jews, that phrase – after the Gaza
withdrawal – rings rather hollow. And while Netanyahu still says often
that he believes in the right of Jews to live “anywhere in the land,”
already in his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009 – when he accepted the idea of a
two-state solution – he voluntarily forfeited that right. That lines
such as these will not show up in May shows just how much the political
ground has shifted over the last 15 years.