On Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress

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Check out my editorial on Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, which was picked up by the Congressional Blog at The Hill.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/234641-the-key-figure-in-the-middle-east-is-abbas

***

As a doctoral student of history at Yale, the coach of the debate team, and a citizen of both the United States and Israel, I felt that Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday hit close to both homes. And all of this in the shadow of the genocidal ISIS on the borders of the Galilee, talk of a regional nuclear arms race, Iran’s promotion of terrorist groups and usual hyperbolic rhetoric about Zionism in all its forms, and the perennial misery of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza.

It’s like some horrible movie in which I and everyone I love are anonymous extras with no power to make a difference to the plot, and our lives are hanging in the balance.

I saw the speech with a close friend of mine of Iranian ancestry (only in America, right?). My friend and I agreed that Netanyahu spoke very powerfully, though the conclusion of the speech in which he seemed to suggest that Israel would attack Iran unilaterally made me laugh—its jets couldn’t even fly over Iraqi airspace without American support. But then I stopped laughing. Who knows what could happen over the course of the next decade depending on who is elected in both countries.

I have four observations about the issues at play here.

1. Israel is right to be concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran’s leadership has appropriated tropes unheard of since the days of the Nazis, and the Jews of the twentieth century learned all too well that supposedly empty threats might not remain empty for long. Iran is a volatile nation that could readily fall prey to a radical revolution such as the others sweeping the Middle East, and who knows whose finger could end up on the little red button. Iran’s leaders require a deal with the United States more than the reverse. Ideally, restrictions on the expansion of the nuclear program should be stringent, with a high price to pay for non-compliance. But Netanyahu didn’t help the issue, because Obama will be unlikely to seriously consider his voice at the table after this speech for fear of appearing to have kowtowed to a reprimand, and Congress is powerless to alter an agreement that hasn’t even been reached yet. The speech was nothing but electioneering that made real compromise less likely, particularly in light of Tehran’s rejection last night of Obama’s “generous” ten year plan even as it currently stands.

2. Ultimately, there must be a compromise of some sort with Iran, because ISIS must be stopped, and this can only happen with Iranian cooperation. Iran and America working together and increasing trade would create new wealth, potentially leading to political liberalization and stabilization. In the long term, Israel cannot expect to remain the only serious military power in the region indefinitely.

3. The Palestinian issue is behind all the trouble between Israel and Iran. In an ideal world, Israel, the Gulf Arab States, and Iran would be close trading partners, leading to regional prosperity and the eradication of the poverty that helps to breed political extremism. The stalling of the peace process is partly Netanyahu’s fault, because his regime has expanded Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and has frustrated the Palestinian government’s attempts to build coalitions. In the long run, if Israel wants to preserve its identity as a Jewish state without recourse to apartheid in the face of falling Jewish birth rates, there needs to be a Palestinian alternative for those people in the country who choose not to live under laws that privilege the Jewish people before others.

4. Mahmoud Abbas—not Netanyahu or Obama or Khamenei—is the person best poised to solve the problems of the Middle East, but not by trying to alienate Israel internationally at the UN and the International Criminal Court while Hamas continues to attack Israeli civilians with weapons funded by Iran. If Abbas would only appropriate the language of passive resistance and adopt the mantle of a modern King or Gandhi, the liberal media’s sympathies would be on his side, and he’d be empowered to have a strong hand at the negotiating table. Even a dozen hunger strikers at the Temple Mount could rejuvenate the peace process if the protestors would only renounce the targeting of innocent civilians as a crime in any time or place.

Netanyahu mentioned the story of Purim in his speech, using it as a reference point for the ambitions of a megalomaniacal Persian politician out to destroy the Jews. But when I think of the relationship between Israel and Persia, I’m reminded of Cyrus the Great, who restored the Jews to Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. Iran and Israel needn’t be enemies, and historically, they have not always been so. But of all people, it is up to Abbas to make the first move, or else Israel will exploit the uncertainty in the region to engage in land grabs, and the country’s enemies will only become more desperate and more militant.

***

Kimel is a doctoral student of history at Yale.

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