Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, in response to an invitation from House Speaker Boehner. The Speaker apparently is within his constitutional rights to do extend the invitation, but he has most likely assured a collective snub from the Obama administration, if not from the Democratic party as a whole, by failing to advise the President of his plan. Pro-Israel lobbyists are poised to wage a "shaming" campaign against any member of Congress who fails to attend the speech. Meanwhile, the Israeli opposition dismisses the speech as a publicity stunt in advance of that country's parliamentary election, much as Republicans dismissed Senator Obama's appearance in Berlin back in 2008, and an election board has ordered Israeli television to broadcast the speech on a tape delay so that anything deemed partisan or electioneering may be edited out. Netanyahu is expected to lecture Congress on the existential threat Iran's nuclear program presents to his country, and to encourage them to take a tougher stand against the Islamic Republic via intensified economic sanctions. For the Republicans, the further point seems to be to highlight Obama's perceived softness on or appeasement of radical Islam.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been the American right's favorite Israeli since the 1980s, when he would argue on American TV that the PLO was part of the international communist conspiracy. Netanyahu is a conservative in Israeli politics the way Republicans are conservatives in U.S. politics. I don't doubt that many right-wingers see Netanyahu as the ideal of a modern political leader, a Churchill for the 21st century, the Englishman's moral equivalent for his uncompromising opposition to what many see as this century's answer to Nazism. Many right-wingers whose grandparents may have despised Netanyahu for his race or religion now seem to see him and his nation as the exemplary "free" or "western" nation. In him, I suspect, they see an archetypal pioneer, and by exalting him they affirm the rightness of their own settler heritage. Against the Palestinians, or against Arabs or Muslims in general, they can make the arguments that are no longer politically correct when made against Native Americans and other aboriginal or simply indigenous "wasters" of land. Such people, settlers believe, should yield to those who can make the land more productive or simply need space to be free. One version of the argument is that Israel deserves the land because they made the desert bloom when Arabs had failed for centuries. Another version is that "democratic" peoples are entitled to supplant politically or culturally backward natives, presumably so that "civilization" or "freedom" will spread. Americans are told constantly that Israel's democratic form of government (contested elections, free press, parliamentary representation for Arabs, etc.) entitles the country to our support against its authoritarian if not barbaric enemies. Apart from whatever moral debt Jews may be owed for the world's failure to prevent the Holocaust, support for Israel is presented as an ideological imperative. This is easier for Americans to swallow as Israel's socialist origins recede deeper into the past. Republicans in particular may believe that we can't abandon Israel's effort to maintain an outpost of "freedom" in the Middle East without in some way repudiating our own settler heritage. If anything, Americans have less excuse for their conquests than Israel has. No centuries-long history of discrimination, much less a holocaust, compelled Englishmen to seek refuge across the Atlantic. Instead, there was for some a desire to be free and for many a wish to get rich -- Americans today make little distinction between motives. Either was cause enough to conquer a land that appeared ill-exploited by people who themselves appeared unworthy of its bounteous potential.
The seemingly self-evident justice of Israel's cause against Muslim savagery virtually vindicates the violence of American settlement -- yet now we have a President whose identification as an American with Israel isn't taken for granted, while the much-vaunted demographic changes coming to our country cast doubts on our continued identification as a people with the settlers of the Jewish state. Netanyahu and the Republicans now see it necessary to raise the specter of Islamic fanaticism to keep Americans' faith with Israel, but Boehner may have gone too far with this gambit. Support for Israel traditionally has been nearly unanimous in the U.S., but by inviting Netanyahu to the Capitol in a way obviously intended as a rebuke if not an insult to Obama, Boehner has charged the Middle East issue with polarizing partisanship. If more Americans see Israel as a particularly Republican cause, fewer are likely to support it, not because they've grown enlightened in any way but because of knee-jerk partisan reactions. Because they want to score points against Obama the Republicans may end up scoring points against Israel in an own-goal sort of way. But I guess that's the only way we'll make progress on foreign policy.