January 21, 2019

Why Bibi should give his speech

Like many other American Jews, I’ve had serious reservations about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress on March 3, against the wishes of President Barack Obama. I’m in that camp of Israel supporters who are obsessed with keeping the most powerful man in the world as squarely on the side of Israel as possible. So if that man tells me he’s unhappy with something Israel has done, well, it gets my attention.

It’s clear from all reports that President Obama is very unhappy with Netanyahu for accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak. It’s also true that Obama expressed no opposition in 2011 when the same event occurred, albeit in less heated circumstances. In any case, if the most powerful man in the world is upset about something, you can’t afford to just shrug that off.

Furthermore, Obama’s negative reaction has put politicians of his own party in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between pleasing him and attending Bibi’s speech. This has awoken the unpleasant scenario of Israel as a partisan issue, bringing down even more wrath on Bibi.

Throw in the fact that the speech comes two weeks before the Israeli elections, and the decision to bash Bibi for his RSVP has become as easy as bashing the Kardashians for lowering our cultural conversation. In much of the Jewish world right now, Bibi-bashing is the safe thing to do if you want people to nod feverishly and agree with you.  

And yet, as much as I’ve had my issues with him over the years, I don’t feel like joining in the anti-Bibi frenzy. Something’s fishy. It’s too easy. It’s too perfect. It's too simple.

Here’s what smells: What is Obama so afraid of? Is it possible that he’s afraid to start a vigorous debate on his Iran strategy that will expose it as potentially harmful to America’s or Israel’s interest?

With the stakes so high and the deadline for a deal so close, it’s about time we have this crucial debate.

Let’s put aside all the hysterics about politics and protocol and how Bibi has ticked off Obama. As sobering as those things may be, they pale in comparison to the strategic issue of how Obama deals with the Iranian nuclear threat. If he’s about to sign an agreement that many experts agree is a bad one, don’t we deserve a national debate? 

There’s good reason to be concerned about what Obama has up his sleeve. In calling for a national debate, an editorial in the Washington Post last week made that clear: “As the Obama administration pushes to complete a nuclear accord with Iran, numerous members of Congress, former secretaries of state and officials of allied governments are expressing concerns about the contours of the emerging deal…We share several of those concerns and believe they deserve a debate now—before negotiators present the world with a fait accompli.”

The editorial outlined three major areas of concern:

“First, a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and temporarily restrict that capability.

“Second, in the course of the negotiations, the Obama administration has declined to counter increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East and seems ready to concede Tehran a place as a regional power at the expense of Israel and other U.S. allies.

“Finally, the Obama administration is signaling that it will seek to implement any deal it strikes with Iran — including the suspension of sanctions that were originally imposed by Congress — without a vote by either chamber. Instead, an accord that would have far-reaching implications for nuclear proliferation and U.S. national security would be imposed unilaterally by a president with less than two years left in his term.”

Those are not tactical concerns; they are urgent, strategic concerns with global implications.

Now, put yourself in Obama’s shoes. You’re very eager to close a deal with Iran. You’ve kept your cards close to the vest. You know your strategy is high-risk and debatable. And you know that if the Israeli prime minister addresses Congress, he may ignite a heated debate about the wisdom of your strategy.

So, what do you do? As the most powerful man in the world, you make a big stink about Bibi’s appearance and hope that that snuffs out the debate.

So far, in the Jewish world at least, it has mostly worked. Jews are talking more about Bibi than about Iran. They’re talking more about cancelling Bibi’s speech than about rolling back Iran’s nuclear program.

But I sense that a backlash has begun, that a debate about Obama’s Iran strategy is finally, haltingly, starting to take hold.

A seminal essay by Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has detailed the highly risky strategy of allowing Iran to become what Obama has called “a very successful regional power.” Similar pieces by Walter Russell Mead and Lee Smith have taken the president to task on this grand strategy. And when a powerful mainstream voice like the Washington Post expresses concern about the president’s approach and calls for an urgent national debate, you know something’s up.

With the stakes so high and the deadline for a deal so close, it’s about time we have this crucial debate. So far, most of the debating has been about the tactical issue of sanctions. Now, we need a more fundamental debate about strategy.

Bibi’s high-profile speech to Congress on March 3 will make sure that the strategic issues and concerns stay front and center. That’s not just good for Israel, it’s also good for America.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Read Rob Eshman's counter-point here: Bibi, call off the play