Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu .
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
The meaning of Zionism is “not being spectators to the decisions that determine our fate,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Monday, defending his decision to address Congress in the face of presidential objections.
Speaking before a gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Netanyahu laid out his rationale for opposing the Obama administration, saying that no responsible Israeli leader could give up the opportunity to inveigh against what he called a “very bad deal” with Iran.
“The survival of Israel is not a partisan issue,” he said, pushing back at critics who have accused him polarizing the American electorate when it comes to the Jewish state.
Calling Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons the “most urgent security challenge facing the world,” Netanyahu said that while he is not opposed to negotiations or to an agreement with the Islamic Republic, he saw it as the responsibility of any Prime Minister to “do everything in his power to prevent the conclusion of bad deal that could threaten the survival of the state of Israel.”
The deal currently on the table would allow Iran to break out to it’s first nuclear device within an “unacceptably short time” and a regime calling for the destruction of Israel “would finally have the means to realize its genocidal aims,” he said.
“How could any responsible Israeli prime minister refuse to speak to Congress on a matter that is so important to Israel’s survival,” Netanyahu asked. “Remember, we were once powerless.
We were once voiceless. We couldn’t even speak on our own behalf. Well we can and we do now.”
According to Netanyahu, it is important to make the address because “a speech before Congress allows Israel to present its position to the elected representatives of the American people and to a worldwide audience.”
Congress may very well have a say on the parameters of any final nuclear agreement, he continued, explaining that he felt it was imperative to speak out before the March 24 deadline for reaching an agreement.
“That is the date that drives the speech,” he said.
While Netanyahu’s remarks were greeted with applause by the crowd, which was comprised of members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, not all American Jewish groups have been supportive of his initiative.
In a recent interview with The Jewish Daily Forward, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, who is a member of the conference, called the prime minister’s plan to address Congress “a tragedy of unintended consequences.”
Telling the newspaper that the media frenzy surrounding the oration “turned the whole thing into a circus,” Foxman said that “one needs to restart, and it needs a mature adult statement that this was not what we intended.”
“Now is a time to recalibrate, restart and find a new platform and new timing to take away the distractions,” he said.
While Foxman did not dispute the urgency of dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the central focus of the speech, he told the Forward that the controversy detracts from Netanyahu’s message.
The paper also interviewed Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who heads the Union for Reform Judaism and who said that Netanyahu should “rethink” the speech, calling it a “bad idea” that could turn support for Israel into a partisan issue.
“This is something we in the Jewish community cannot afford,” he was quoted as saying.
Seymour Reich, the former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has also come out against the speech, and the lobbying group J-Street is running a campaign in which it exhorts American Jews to make their voices heard by signing a petition if they do not agree that Netanyahu speaks for them.
“The prime minister has in the past and will again use the US Congress as a prop in his political campaigns,” J-Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote on his organization’s Facebook page.
The speech has also become a bone of contention between House Speaker John Boehner and President Barak Obama, with the republican lawmaker stating that he declined to provide the administration with advance notice of the invitation. The resultant controversy has led to a number of legislators, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, to declare that they will not attend the event.
Also addressing the Conference of Presidents on Monday morning, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said that he stands with Netanyahu “absolutely on his battle to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
“The Israeli nation fully stands behind the prime minister,” he said.