Asking the wrong question on Bibi’s speech

People wondering about House Speaker John Boehner’s dubious invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress are, I suspect, asking the wrong question.

Even a couple anchors on Fox News came out against the invitation, with Chris Wallace noting that Secretary of State John Kerry had met with Israel’s ambassador, Ron Dermer, with Dermer failing to inform Kerry that the invitation was in the works, and Shepard Smith replying, “It seems like they think we don’t pay attention and that we’re just a bunch of complete morons — the United States citizens — as if we wouldn’t pick up on what’s happening here.”[1] And, “A large majority of Americans believe that Republican congressional leaders should not have invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the White House, according to a new CNN/ORC survey.”[2]

The invitation has been widely criticized for politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship and as interference in the upcoming Israeli elections. “The decision to invite Netanyahu for a speech addressing the Iranian threat, and announce it a day after President Obama’s State of the Union opposed new Iran sanctions legislation, has been widely (and correctly) viewed as a Republican maneuver against the President. It is precisely for that reason that Netanyahu’s acceptance of that invitation represents a serious strategic blunder.”[3] “Boehner’s hubris, in conjunction with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire to interfere with American policy while seeking to bolster his re-election campaign, may turn out to be the very political screw-up that will allow the joint ticket forged by the Labor-Hatnuah political parties to bring an end to Netanyahu’s long reign atop the Israeli government.”[4] “In Israel, critics have characterized Netanyahu’s trip as an election ploy and a slap in the face of the Obama administration after it’s worked hard to deflect challenges to Israel at the United Nations and most recently at the International Criminal Court.”[5] “Netanyahu has made the second-worst choice he could make. He has not attacked Iran, which is good—an Israeli attack holds the promise of disaster—but he has decided to ruin his relations with Obama.”[6] “And frankly I don’t think a Speaker would have dared try to treat a white president that way.”[7] “But, now, it appears that Netanyahu’s gambit is blowing up in his face. Congressional Democrats are furious with Netanyahu, and the speech may well have caused them to put off a critical vote on Iran sanctions, thus putting Netanyahu’s goal further out of reach.”[8] The criticism has been relentless. Several Democrats, including many from the Congressional Black Caucus, have said they will not attend.[9] Kevin Drum, at Mother Jones, wrote that the episode had turned into a “big shit sandwich” for Boehner.[10] “I think there’s a lot of blame to go around. I do think there is a problem with the Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer.”[11]

So for people asking the wrong question, it’s evident the speech is a stupid idea,[12] made stupider through Boehner’s and Netanyahu’s intransigence.[13] Too stupid. So stupid, in fact, that it just doesn’t make any sense at all.

Which is why I think they’re asking the wrong question.

We can reasonably assess Netanyahu as suffering from a messiah complex. For him, the fact of the Holocaust excuses any Israeli sin, and he will do whatever it takes to, in his self-understanding, lead his people, the Jews, to safety in Israel and to make Israel safe for Jews. We see some of this in his recent pleas for a mass migration to Israel.[14] We see more of it in his unwillingness to countenance even the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and in his conviction that Obama’s negotiations are naïve.[15] And we see yet more of it in his genocidal attacks on the Gaza Strip.[16]

The same cannot be said of John Boehner. And so the question that people should be asking is, why, despite all of this, he is insisting that the speech should go ahead as planned.[17]

Let’s rule out that this has anything to do with appeal to voters. The earlier cited CNN/ORC poll shows not only that the speech, as planned, is deeply unpopular, but that support for Israel in its conflict with Palestine is weak, especially among younger voters. The only solace in those numbers for Boehner is that 52 percent of Republicans support the speech.[18]

Which is to say that this is about Republican party politics, and very likely, about the conflict between functionalist conservatives (so-called “establishment Republicans”) and authoritarian populists (in their most recent guise, the “Tea Party”) in the U.S. Congress. I am in no position to evaluate Boehner’s calculations. But what I see in my dissertation research that I am finding I need to explore further is an astonishing level of antipathy among conservatives toward Barack Obama.[19] Conservatives, especially authoritarian populists, exhibit a strong tendency to demonize Obama that goes way beyond the bounds of the normal political rough-and-tumble. In fact, one might say that many, probably most, conservatives view Obama about the way that Netanyahu views Iran.

Boehner, whom I have previously understood to be a functionalist conservative, needs to show these other conservatives that he is on their side. He is doing this by politically poking Obama in the eye at every opportunity. The Netanyahu speech is one example. His willingness to let funding expire for the Department of Homeland Security over Obama’s immigration policies is another.[20] His lawsuits against Obama, which I doubt anyone outside of Congress takes seriously, are yet another.

So guess what my forecast for the next two years is? Yup. More of the same. And if Congress manages to accomplish anything at all during this time, it will be despite this dynamic, not because of it.

  1. [1]Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith, quoted in Dina Rickman, “Even Fox News thought this from Netanyahu was a bit much,” Independent, January 25, 2015,–ekxCnm4vox
  2. [2]Alexandra Jaffe, “CNN/ORC poll: Majority of Americans oppose Netanyahu invite,” CNN, February 17, 2015,
  3. [3]Yishai Schwartz, “Netanyahu’s Foolish Speech,” Lawfare, January 22, 2015,
  4. [4]Rick Ungar, “Bibi Netanyahu — aka ‘The Republican Senator From Israel’ — May Have Made A Fatal Political Mistake,” Forbes, January 25, 2015,
  5. [5]Joel Greenberg, “Criticism of Netanyahu’s planned U.S. speech mounts in Israel,” McClatchy, January 26, 2015,
  6. [6]Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Netanyahu Disaster,” Atlantic, January 27, 2015,
  7. [7]Juan Cole, “Netanyahu & Boehner: How Israel went from being a Democratic to a Republican Project,” Informed Comment, January 29, 2015,
  8. [8]Zack Beauchamp, “Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress is already backfiring,” Vox, February 5, 2015,
  9. [9]Edward-Isaac Dovere, “Israeli officials fail to quell Democratic revolt,” Politico, February 4, 2015,; Edward-Isaac Dovere and Lauren French, “Don’t disrespect our president, black lawmakers tell Netanyahu,” Politico, February 10, 2015,; Paul Kane, “Senior Democrats consider boycott of Netanyahu address to Congress,” Washington Post, February 4, 2015,; Mike Lillis, “Top Black Dems to skip Netanyahu speech,” Hill, February 5, 2015,; Mike Lillis, “Dems lining up to skip Netanyahu,” Hill, February 6, 2015,; Justin Sink and Mike Lillis, “Dem boycott of Netanyahu address to Congress grows,” Hill, February 9, 2015,
  10. [10]Kevin Drum, “John Boehner’s Big Triumph Is Now Just a Big Shit Sandwich,” Mother Jones, February 6, 2015,
  11. [11]Tucker Carlson, quoted in Dylan Scott, “Tucker Carlson Criticizes Israeli Ambassador: I ‘Think There Is A Problem’,” Talking Points Memo, February 9, 2015,
  12. [12]Zack Beauchamp, “Why Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is backfiring, in two tweets,” Vox, February 11, 2015,
  13. [13]Edward-Isaac Dovere and Jake Sherman, “Benjamin Netanyahu’s side strikes back,” Politico, February 6, 2015,; Scott Wong and Elise Viebeck, “Will Bibi back out?” Hill, February 7, 2015,
  14. [14]David Benfell, “Mass migration and the one-state solution,” Not Housebroken, February 15, 2015,
  15. [15]Zack Beauchamp, “Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress is already backfiring,” Vox, February 5, 2015,; Zack Beauchamp, “Why Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is backfiring, in two tweets,” Vox, February 11, 2015,; Edward-Isaac Dovere and Jake Sherman, “Benjamin Netanyahu’s side strikes back,” Politico, February 6, 2015,; Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Netanyahu Disaster,” Atlantic, January 27, 2015,; Eugene Robinson, “Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu backfires on them both,” Washington Post, January 29, 2015,; Yishai Schwartz, “Netanyahu’s Foolish Speech,” Lawfare, January 22, 2015,
  16. [16]Patricia Davis, “We Called It Genocide in Guatemala. Why Not in Gaza Too?” Common Dreams, October 7, 2014,
  17. [17]Scott Wong and Elise Viebeck, “Will Bibi back out?” Hill, February 7, 2015,
  18. [18]Alexandra Jaffe, “CNN/ORC poll: Majority of Americans oppose Netanyahu invite,” CNN, February 17, 2015,
  19. [19]David Benfell, “Bibi’s Train Wreck,” February 8, 2015,; David Benfell, “Bitter small town people who cling to guns and religion,” February 14, 2015,
  20. [20]Associated Press, “Boehner raises possibility of letting funding for Homeland Security lapse, forcing shutdown,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, February 16, 2015,; Keith Laing, “Boehner ‘certainly’ prepared to let DHS funding expire,” Hill, February 15, 2015,; Cristina Marcos, “Conservatives not sweating DHS shutdown,” Hill, February 15, 2015,

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