Diplomacy: PM's speech to Congress... then and now

In an exercise in "how much things have changed yet stayed the same," Herb Keinon returns to Netanyahu's address to Congress 15 years ago.

US Congress (photo credit: courtesy)
US Congress
(photo credit: courtesy)
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 you.
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 president?
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 talks.”
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 proposal.
“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 freedom.”
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 prime minister.
“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 economic prosperity.
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 specific.
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 numerous occasions.
“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 the agenda.
“... 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 grandchildren.”
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 be uttered.
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.