Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Let the Israeli Prime Minister Be Heard

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As a television reporter in Washington D.C., I was sent one day to interview the Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Israel's new embassy had just been completed, not far from our newsroom, near Connecticut Avenue NW and Van Ness. I remember thinking how much the place looked like a fortress.

More surprising to me, in those days when nobody even glanced in my handbag as I walked into the U.S. Capitol, the security at the Embassy of Israel was even more imposing than the building.

Our bags were searched; my cosmetic bag was emptied; my reporter's pen uncapped and scrutinized. An Israeli technician examined our camera, microphone, sound system and light bag. The videotapes were x-rayed and the camera was turned on and allowed to roll to make sure it really was a camera. Our communication devices were left with security.

Geesh, I thought at the time; what must it be like to live like this? 

And then the world changed and we knew. 

The former Israeli Ambassador I interviewed that day is now Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. His invitation to speak before the U.S. Congress this March has embroiled him in a Washington kerfuffle, because, in an unusual reversal of protocol, he is not coming at the invitation of the President of the United States, but at the invitation of Congress. President Obama, a Democrat, has not warmed to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The new Congressional Republican leadership is happy to capitalize on this.

But out of this Byzantine political squabble may come something worthwhile for the people of the United States. With so many nations of the Middle East falling backward into a horrible new Dark Age marked by ignorance and blood, it is about time Americans heard from someone who can articulate the challenges we face there. No leader in America has been able to do it. Maybe Netanyahu can shake us out of our somnambulance.

How should civilized nations confront an enemy that executes a military POW by setting him on fire? That slaughters people who draw cartoons? That beheads pacifist Japanese journalists? That blows up civilians racing in a marathon? Of even more importance: what happens next, when Iran goes nuclear?

Within this context, at this time in history Netanyahu's speech to Congress will almost certainly be a corker. Though born in Tel Aviv, he graduated from high school in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania. Listeners will find him a very American foreign leader. He's also a rare one for our time as he's done a great deal more than just sit around in a suit and tie. He's been wounded twice serving in his country's special forces. And his family has sacrificed as well: his older brother Yani, born in New York, died during the hostage rescue operation known as the Raid on Entebbe. 

Commentators, and even the U.S. president, who have complained that the Israeli Prime Minister should not address Congress so close to an Israeli election, are obfuscating. Israel is a nation of eight million people, with a literacy rate of 95% and twenty-two daily newspapers. Voters there are among the best informed in the world. I've traveled in Israel and I believe its citizens are among the least likely to have their votes influenced by a sideshow in America. They have much more important things to worry about. Those rockets landing on Israel daily from mobile launchers in Gaza and Syria, tend to occuply their thoughts. The continually spinning centrifuges in Iran are also top of mind.

There is a growing anti-Semitism in the West, which makes rudeness toward Israel and its leaders acceptable among the intelligentsia. There is talk in Washington of a boycott or of moving the speech to another location, as if the Jewish Prime Minister is somehow radioactive. It is difficult to imagine another U.S. ally who would be treated like this. 

If the speech does go forward, the world will have a chance to hear an experienced leader address this critical subject and not have it filtered through the polarizing commentators of MSNBC and Fox News. The sludge-like horror seeping out of the Middle East may be the biggest existential threat to the civilized world since World War II. A meaningful discussion about it is essential.

So why are the elite of Washington so afraid of this man? Let Prime Minister Netanyahu have his say. 

The author covering Capitol Hill with Rep. Frank Wolf in the foreground and Rep. Steny Hoyer buttoning his jacket screen left.

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Janet Grunst said...

It is very frustrating when our President will negotiate with Iran and Cuba, but not with Congress. We need a Churchill, not a Chamberlain.

Cynthia Riordan said...

When he said he wanted to fundamentally change America, this is what he meant. Wonder when people will wake up. Great piece, Robin.

Cynthia Riordan