What is it about the controversy surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming address to Congress that has us defying the norms of the 24-hour media cycle and still talking about it two weeks later?
The story certainly struck a nerve. It has united everyone from Fox News anchor Chris Wallace to former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in objecting to the timing of the Prime Minister’s visit. And it’s easy to see why, given its proximity to a highly contested Israeli election and the dubious way in which House Speaker John Boehner broke protocol to engineer it.
Last Friday, I took part in a CNN discussion with Rabbi and former Republican Congressional candidate Shmuley Boteach, to make the case that Prime Minister Netanyahu should postpone his visit until after the Israeli vote and after the US Congress has resolved its dispute over Iran sanctions legislation. By going ahead as planned, I argued, the Prime Minister risks being perceived as meddling in our politics, while catering to his own, potentially undermining longstanding bipartisan American support for Israel.
Unfortunately, rather than engaging in a substantive, reasoned discussion about the issues at stake, Boteach chose to attack me in exactly the no-holds-barred, personal manner that so damages the US-Israel relationship.
After I cited widespread media reports that Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer worked with House Speaker John Boehner to arrange the visit, and failed to inform the White House even during a two-hour conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry, Boteach accused me of slander and demanded an apology.
But he didn’t stop there, even after I acknowledged that I didn’t know personally whether this scheme was the Ambassador’s initiative or if he was simply part of the plan. He has since launched an all-out social media offensive against me, going so far as to question my love and commitment to Israel, which drives my work.
His attacks have only served to demonstrate the damaged state of the conversation about Israel today. Instead of engaging seriously about how best to ensure Israel’s safety and survival, too many in our community immediately attack in a personal manner those with whom they disagree.
In this case, instead of addressing the increasing politicization of the U.S.-Israel relationship, Boteach chose to assail me and my right to discuss it.
Boteach and I agree, I would imagine, that a nuclear-armed Iran would present an unacceptable threat to Israel, the Middle East and the broader world community. But we don’t agree how best to prevent it, and we should be able to have a civil discussion about that as well.
I believe that Iran’s nuclear program did not slow for even a second under sanctions and military threat, until negotiators reached a diplomatic agreement in 2013. That interim deal has, for the first time, rolled back the most concerning aspects of Iran’s program. In the coming months, we have an historic opportunity to reach a permanent agreement that I, and many others, believe represents our best chance of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. I suppose that Boteach has a different view.
I suppose I shouldn’t have gone on CNN expecting a civil conversation about our differences of opinion. After all, I’ve become all too familiar with the way in which Israel is increasingly being used like every other issue: to divide the country between Democrats and Republicans. But I also know that this sort of partisanship has consequences.
Israel is facing grave threats on numerous fronts: increasing international isolation, a stalemate with the Palestinians, Iran’s potential attainment of nuclear arms, and ISIL’s destabilization of the region.
Where is the wisdom in undercutting the US-Israel relationship by turning it into a partisan wedge issue? And for a Jewish community that is desperate to cultivate and engage its next generation of leaders, why send the message to young American Jews that they aren’t really pro-Israel unless their politics align with your own?
There’s a reason that the controversy over this speech isn’t going away and why American Jews are up in arms and feeling sick to their stomach. They don’t like having to choose between Israel’s Prime Minister and the American President that two-thirds of them voted for.
This may be an easy choice for Boteach, a Republican partisan, but for everyone else, it is a choice that’s likely to alienate friends that Israel most certainly needs.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street, the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.