Benjamin Netanyahu says his speech against President Obama’s Iran policy, delivered on the floor of Congress, shouldn’t be taken as an affront. “My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama,” Netanyahu told AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group, on Monday. In his remarks to Congress on Tuesday morning, the prime minister brushed aside those who “perceive my being here as political.”
But back home, Netanyahu shows no such tolerance. He claims to represent not just all Israelis, but all Jews. When critics question his policies, he purges them from office, challenges their patriotism, and accuses them of serving foreign masters. If anyone were to do in Israel what Netanyahu has just done here—walk into the nation’s parliament at the unilateral invitation of an opposition party and deliver a speech against the government’s foreign policy—Netanyahu would have cried treason.
Let’s get a few excuses out of the way. First, the indisputable purpose of this speech was to enlist Congress as a weapon against Obama. Two weeks ago, according to Haaretz, Israel’s ambassador to the United States—the Netanyahu protégé who negotiated the speaking engagement—told officials in Jerusalem that Netanyahu was going to Congress because Israel “has almost no ability to influence the negotiations through other channels.” Last Friday, campaigning in Israel, Netanyahu said he was coming here to lobby “the only body that may prevent” the Iran deal. The gist of both statements is obvious: Netanyahu doesn’t like Obama’s policy, so he’s trying to use Congress to block it.
Netanyahu says he’s doing this only because Iranian nukes are an existential threat to Israel. But this isn’t the first time Netanyahu has publicly challenged Obama. The last time he did it—lecturing Obama in the Oval Office, in front of television cameras, for seven minutes in May 2011—the subject wasn’t Iran. It was peace talks with the Palestinians.
In Israel, Netanyahu is exploiting his fight with the administration. He accuses his rivals in the center and on the left of “groveling to the international community” while he stands up to foreign pressure. A Likud campaign ad casts Netanyahu in the tradition of past Israeli leaders who, according to the ad, defied “the American secretary of state” and “the American State Department.”
So let’s be clear: Netanyahu has come here to defy Obama. He has done so because confrontation is in his nature. And he’s politicizing it. You can dismiss all his protestations that the speech shouldn’t be taken as an assault on the authority of our head of state. Because that’s exactly how Netanyahu treats criticism of his own policies back home.
Two years ago, Netanyahu formed a coalition government with several smaller parties. He got to be prime minister. In exchange, leaders of the other parties got jobs in the cabinet. Israel has a parliamentary system, so the other leaders are members of Israel’s congress. Two of them criticized some of Netanyahu’s policies. So, in December, Netanyahu fired them. “I will not tolerate opposition anymore within the government,” he declared.
Netanyahu didn’t just dissolve the government and force new elections; he demanded greater authority. He announced plans to pass a new law that would strip dissenting parties of their power to check the prime minister by withdrawing from the government. Under the new law, said Netanyahu, “the head of the largest party will automatically be installed by the government, and will be ensured a four-year term,” unless a supermajority of parliament votes to remove him.
In January, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, France organized a massive march against terrorism. The French government asked Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to attend. France didn’t want Israeli-Palestinian issues or Netanyahu’s election campaign to cloud the message of the march. Netanyahu attended anyway. In a direct challenge to the national solidarity and pluralism France wanted to convey, Netanyahu urged “all French Jews” to move to Israel. He worked his way up to the front row of the march and plugged his own biography in a speech. “I am personally familiar with the wounds of terror,” he recalled. “As a soldier, I was wounded in an operation to free hostages who had been kidnapped on a Sabena airplane.”
Having sown division in France, Netanyahu used his trip to quash dissent in Israel. He portrayed his participation at the march—which he had decided to attend only after discovering that two other Israeli politicians would be there—as glory for Israel, since Netanyahu represented the nation. “There is great significance in what the world saw, the prime minister of Israel marching with all the world leaders in a united effort against terrorism,” said Netanyahu. In fact, he asserted, “I came to Paris not only as prime minister of Israel, but as a representative of the Jewish people.”
When Netanyahu’s point man negotiates a congressional speech behind Obama’s back, it’s just a disagreement among friends. But when a former Obama campaign operative meddles in Israeli politics, Netanyahu treats it as an invasion. A month ago, Netanyahu’s political party, Likud, found out that an Israeli peace organization had hired a strategist who had previously worked for Obama’s 2012 campaign. The strategist also worked for like-minded groups in other countries. Likud demanded that Israeli election officials prohibit the group from participating in the election. Likud accused the group of using “foreign funding” and said its overseas connections “raise a red flag … regarding the true allegiance” of Netanyahu’s rivals.
When Israelis question the wisdom of Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran, or his plan to speak in Congress, he dismisses them and purports to speak for the whole nation. Two weeks ago, he told Israelis that he would come to Congress “representing all the citizens of Israel.” On Sunday, he went further: “I am the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, of the entire Jewish people.” A statement from Likud accused dissenters of betraying national security: “On such a crucial existential … issue for the citizens of Israel, opposition leaders should rise above political and personal considerations and stand alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
So please, Mr. Prime Minister, don’t pretend we shouldn’t take offense at what you just did. If anybody did the same to you, you’d never stand for it.