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.