A Rift On The Israeli Street


Jerusalem — Pavel Gadakshan thinks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should stand up before the U.S. Congress on March 3 and speak his mind about the threat Iran poses.

“Netanyahu must go to the Congress and tell them that Iran is the biggest sponsor of Islamic terrorism, and that Iran is a real threat not only to Israel but to the rest of the world,” Gadakshan, 66, said as he delivered garments to a shop in Jerusalem’s Malcha Mall.

“Netanyahu needs to remind Congress that this isn’t the first time Iranian leaders have tried to deceive the world about their intentions,” Gadakshan continued, “and that Israel cannot be the only country fighting to prevent Iran from turning nuclear.”

Gadakshan, originally from Armenia, insisted that opposition to the visit from the White House, some House Democrats and even some Jewish groups, must not prevent Netanyahu from delivering his warning.

“Some things transcend politics, and this is one of those things,” he said with finality.

Not so, says Shlomi Ezrachi, as he waited his turn in the mall’s barber shop, echoing a split on the Israeli street about the hot-button issue of the moment as elections near next month.

Netanyahu should not go to Washington, “not because he doesn’t have the right, but because it’s fostering antagonism from the Obama administration and even a lot of Democrats who ordinarily support Israel,” the 27-year-old student said.

“Just because someone can do something doesn’t mean he should,” he added. “Who knows? Maybe the Iranians will reject the American deal and this tiff will have all been for nothing.”

Israelis, polls show, are divided over the visit as Netanyahu’s stewardship of Israel’s relationship with its key ally, the United States, has emerged as a defining issue in the election. In an Israel Army Radio survey released Monday, 37 percent of respondents said Netanyahu should proceed with his address before Congress, while 47 percent said he should cancel it. Sixteen percent were undecided.

Left-wing commentators and even a few in the center have bashed Netanyahu for what they consider his political move to bolster his image as the “Savior of Israeli Security” just two weeks before the March 17 election. Others, while not denying the unfortunate timing, think Netanyahu’s warnings at such a key juncture in U.S.-Iran nuclear talks must take precedence over politics.

Obama has said he cannot condone a speech by a foreign leader so close to the Israeli election because it “could be perceived as partisan politics.” House Republicans, who reportedly did not inform the White House of their invitation to Netanyahu, dispute this. The debate is forcing House Democrats to choose between angering Obama by attending the speech or offending Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has spent the past week trying to shore up domestic and international support for his congressional address.

“The American secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister held talks over the weekend,” Netanyahu noted during Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “They announced that they intend to complete a framework agreement by the end of March. From this stems the urgency of our efforts to try and block this bad and dangerous agreement.”

Addressing the accusations directed at him, Netanyahu said during an election event, “While some are busy with protocol or politics, a bad deal with Iran is taking shape. This is not a political issue or a party issue, neither here nor there. This is an existential issue, and I approach it with the fullest responsibility.”

On Monday Obama said he has no intention of extending the Iranian negotiations beyond the end of March and that it was time for Iran to decide whether or not to move forward with an agreement.

“I don’t see a further extension being useful if they have not agreed to the basic formulation and the bottom line that the world requires to have confidence that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” the president said during a joint press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“And as I’ve said to Congress, I’ll be the first to work with them to apply stronger measures against Iran. But what’s the rush?” he added.

Israeli newspapers have carried reports from American media sources that some American Jewish leaders believe the speech will exacerbate the already hostile relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.

Yet a JTA article run by the left-wing Haaretz newspaper noted that the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition are all supporting Netanyahu’s visit and its timing.

On Monday Haaretz ran an editorial calling for Netanyahu to call off the speech. (It was a sentiment echoed by Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman and Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs in comments made to the Forward.)

“Instead of acting responsibly as a prime minister should, Netanyahu insists on deepening the rift he has created with the Americans,” the Haaretz editorial said. “He is thus endangering Israel’s most important relationship, behaving rashly as far as strategy is concerned and trampling the remnants of Israeli diplomacy.”

Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, said the Israeli public is watching the unfolding drama with concern.

“In Israel the relationship with the U.S. is seen as important, so this kind of crisis is seen as important,” he said. “At the same time, if Netanyahu is trying to win the many undecided voters, he may try to find a way to extricate himself from this standoff, possibly by addressing AIPAC instead of the Congress.”

Rahat theorized that Netanyahu’s “close relationship” with billionaire Republican Sheldon Adelson, whose Israeli newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, is a staunch supporter of Netanyahu and his Likud party, could be one reason he is so intent on speaking to Congress.

“It could be because the speech helps the Republican cause,” he said.

But Rahat also believes Netanyahu’s motivation “is not solely political in the partisan sense.”

“I imagine he believes that Obama doesn’t get it” and that to protect Israel, Netanyahu needs to convince Congress that “his world view is the right view,” Rahat said.

David Jablinowitz, a political correspondent at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, told The Jewish Week that the Obama administration has also been playing politics.

As it stands now, the impression is that Vice President Joe Biden prefers to meet with the Israeli opposition leader instead of hearing Netanyahu, and that Secretary of State John Kerry prefers photo-ops with the Iranian foreign minister over the possibility of a meeting with the Israeli prime minister.

Further, Jablinowitz said, the Israeli election rules governing candidates’ actions and the media coverage they receive aren’t as relevant as they once were.

“Let Netanyahu address Congress. Gone are the days when Israeli television could not show Prime Minister Menachem Begin meeting with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat because it was just before a Knesset election,” he said.

Back at the Malcha Mall, Etti Sorin, 60, who runs the clothing store, sounded a somewhat more cautious note about the upcoming visit, which this week an Israeli official confirmed is still slated to take place, regardless of the brouhaha.

“On the one hand, I personally wouldn’t go to a place where I’m not wanted,” Sorin said. “On the other hand, sometimes you can’t sit passively by when there is a threat. I just don’t know,” she said.

Aryeh Shalem, a pensioner, said, “I’m in favor of the speech. Why not? We need to warn the world how dangerous a nuclear Iran would be for the Middle East and the entire world. The U.S. president has his own agenda, and however well intentioned, he doesn’t want Israel interfering in it.

Doing some shopping, Hussein Dawish, an Arab who lives in Jerusalem, said he hopes Obama and Netanyahu can iron out their differences.

“It is difficult to go against the wishes of the president of the United States, but Netanyahu has an important message to tell the Congress. Inshallah [God willing], they will work it out.”