"I'm going to address Congress in Washington, not only as the Prime Minister of Israel but also on behalf of the entire Jewish People," declared Netanyahu, at one of the highlights of the intensifying public debate in Israel and the United States. J-Street, the left-wing American Jewish lobby, was quick to respond with a petition stating: "No, Mr. Netanyahu. You do not speak for me. Benjamin Netanyahu has a mandate to represent the State of Israel. He has no mandate to speak on behalf of Jews in the United States." Within a few days the petition was signed by more than twenty thousand American Jews. Even Abe Foxman of the ADL - a pillar of the American Jewish establishment - desperately called upon Netanyahu to cancel his speech and put out the spreading conflagration.
The invitation to Congress which Netanyahu arranged for himself, behind the back of the White House, brought to the surface the growing gap between Israel and the American Jewish community. The overwhelming majority of American Jews tend to the liberal side of the political spectrum. Several generations of American Jews at the same time tended to render a deep emotional support to Israel, which also expressed their feeling of guilt for not having done enough to prevent to save European Jews.
In the fifties and early sixties, it was fairly easy for progressive American Jews to support the State of Israel, which at the time had an international reputation as an egalitarian country with the Kibbutz Movement as its main showcase. But already for a long time, Jews who support any Progressive issue and campaign, in the United States itself and worldwide, find it difficult to link this with supporting the State of Israel – ever more difficult, with Israel being most of the time under right-wing nationalist governments, blatant racism spreading from the margins of Israeli society into the heart of the political establishment, settlements ever growing and expanding at the expense of the meager land remaining to the Palestinians, and every few years the TV screens being filled with footage of the death and destruction left by the Israeli Air Force in Lebanon or Gaza. Especially the younger generation of American Jewish community feels increasingly alienated from Israel. Some of them express it in open - sometimes very blunt – criticism. Many others just turn away quietly.
All of this intensified with the appearance of Barack Obama on the scene. Most American Jews greeted his election to the presidency with enthusiasm and joy. The Jews were among Obama’s most prominent and consistent supporters in both 2008 and 2012. Conversely, many in Israel - including the Prime Minister elected by the Israelis, his cabinet ministers and his political party – regarded Obama with suspicion from the outset, and their suspicion soon developed into hostility, if not outright hatred.
In 2011, in the midst of a heated confrontation with Obama, Netanyahu succeeded to get himself invited to speak at Congress. At that time, the gambit worked well - Netanyahu got a standing ovation from legislators of both parties, and his speech in Congress greatly helped derail the attempt which Obama made at the time, to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on the 1967 borders. Since then, however, much water had flowed through both the Jordan River and the Potomac. Netanyahu increased his outright involvement in American politics, and did not bother to hide his strong support for and identification with the Republican Party. American politics itself became more polarized, and most American Jews found themselves at the opposite pole to that in which the Prime Minister of Israeli took his stand.
The confrontation could have broken out two months ago, had Obama chosen not to exercise the American veto in the UN Security Council, when the Palestinian draft resolution came to the vote. But the President of the United States chose another ground for his battle with Netanyahu: Iran.
The outline of the emerging agreement with Iran is already quite clear, even if the details have not yet been finalized: Iran will remain a "Threshold State", possessing the potential to acquire nuclear weapons, but it will avoid taking this last step and allow international monitoring of its compliance with this condition. Of course, no one will require the State of Israel, which had successfully taken that last step some fifty years ago (in an intensive confrontation with then-President John F. Kennedy), to give up its nuclear arsenal (at least two hundred bombs, as of the account given by Mordechai Vanunu in1986), or the missiles capable of carrying those bombs to any point in the Middle East and further afield, or the German-made submarines sailing deep under the waters of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean and ready at any moment to launch these missiles bearing those bombs.
According to Netanyahu, this agreement which Obama intends to sign with Iran would be "A bad agreement, a calamitous agreement, an agreement which would endanger the very existence of Israel" and therefore "It is my duty to go to Washington and address Congress and do everything in my power to prevent the signing of the evil agreement with Iran. I will not flinch, I am determined to go."
It seems that he did manage to convince the right-wing constituency in Israel. The planned Congress speech became the focus of the ongoing Israeli elections campaign. The opposition parties are calling for Netanyahu to cancel the speech, and now this call is joined by five former Ambassadors who at different times represented the State of Israel in Washington. But the hardcore right-wing voters are far from disliking an all-out confrontation with the President of the United States and with large parts of the American public, including many American Jews. According to the polls, this does not diminish willingness to vote for Netanyahu – it might even increase it.
In the United States, the situation is very different. Netanyahu in effect set the Democrat Senators and Representatives - and Jewish Americans, traditional supporters of the Democratic party – an unequivocal choice, forcing them to choose between an Israeli Prime Minister openly supporting the Republicans and a President of the United States from the Democratic Party. Did Netanyahu realize that faced with such a clear-cut dilemma, the choice of American Legislators and Jews may not be for him?
In all this big fuss, a very low profile is kept by one group which has a vital interest in what transpires on Capitol Hill: AIPAC, the veteran, mighty Israeli Lobby. For decades, AIPAC officials spent tireless effort in order to build a bipartisan power base in Congress, so that no matter which party holds the White House or has a majority in the House and Senate, support for the Israeli government policies would always remain solid. What do the AIPAC people feel today - when Netanyahu, like a bull in a china shop, is rampaging and destroying all that they spent decades to construct? I would guess they are gnashing their teeth, like a shrewd lawyer whose client insists upon sabotaging and ruining the defense case.