Friday, May 27, 2011

Bibi's Impact

It seems just about everyone thinks Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was incredibly strong this past week in how he addressed and presented Israel's concerns and approach to the future of the Middle East, whether they agree in general or not. And, throughout the country and especially in Congress, most people really liked and appreciated the points he made as well, leading to the seemingly unending, loud standing ovations from the entire Congress, something most Presidents get once or twice in each of their State of the Union addresses - which is a depressing point, when one thinks about it.

There are however two particularly interesting points that seemed worth a bit more inspection:
  • What is so different between Bibi Netanyahu circa 1999 and Bibi Netanyahu circa 2011,
  • And why did what he say resonate so strongly with Americans?
Bennett Ruda at Daled Amos asked the first question today:
I wonder whether Netanyahu is any less passionate than he was during his first term as Prime Minister--I imagine not. But few remember Bibi's first term as Prime Minister all that fondly.
Let's not forget that Netanyahu's performance over the weekind was something of a surprise--a pleasant surprise, but a surprise nevertheless. There was concern, as there has been for many months, that Bibi would fold--that he would give in to US pressure. But he did not.
I believe (and Bennett agreed as well) that the difference is primarily expectations. In the nineties, Netanyahu ran on a platform which essentially stated that the peace process as formulated was devastating to Israel and would place the country in grave danger, by being the first country to capitulate to terrorist tactics - then went on to make some questionable concessions himself. All in all, people were disappointed as compared to what they had desired and expected.

This week, the expectations were much lower, and much more nerve-wracking. People weren't sure what Netanyahu may or may not concede to after a strong speech by President Obama. But instead (and perhaps the overstepping of the President in calling for a return to a 1967-based border before discussing Jerusalem, "right of return", et al allowed for this), he did the exact opposite. He firmed up his stance clearly and unequivocally, demonstrating exactly why those points were not demands, but necessities, and obvious to any rational observer or listener.

~~~

In today's Best of the Web, James Taranto quotes Walter Russell Mead, who believes that Netanyahu's speech "may have been the single most stunning and effective public rebuke to an American President a foreign leader has ever delivered." Perhaps more interestingly, Taranto discusses (and agrees with) Mead's assertion that
Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don't "get" Israel also don't "get" America and don't "get" God.
While this certainly has a strong ring of truth to it, it doesn't seem to be the primary reason Netanyahu resonated so well across the spectrum with his statements.What Netanyahu discussed, when he wasn't giving basic but important history lessons, were true elements relating to freedom. There are broad differences among American Jews, let alone Americans, in terms of what Israel should be doing and how to approach the Middle East's various issues. But above all, what Americans value is freedom, and I believe that it is that core value which is what spoke so strongly to Americans from Netanyahu's speech and other comments throughout the weekend.

There are two basic elements of freedom, democracy, and liberty: The freedom to make one's own choices in life; and the restrictions we place on ourselves so as not to infringe on other people's freedoms.* When the leader of a small but strong democracy notes that his people simply must have secure, defensible borders, Americans relate. We understand, perhaps now better than ever, that it is integral to feel safe in one's own country - whether at home, on a bus, at work, or on the way home from school. When he asks us to imagine a country just nine miles wide in the middle, it is not hard to relate to the difficulty of defending a country as wide as the average person's daily commute. When he states Israel will not accept approaches which do not protect their basic interests, and neither would America in the same situation, we accept that only Israel should determine its fate. And when he speaks his mind to say (thanks JoeSettler for the text)
Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel's Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one half of 1% are truly free, and they're all citizens of Israel!

This startling fact reveals a basic truth: Israel is not what is wrong about the Middle East; Israel is what is right about the Middle East!
most people just get it.

For all of the issues, all of the concerns, Israel is doing what the United States has always done: Stand for freedom. As Netanyahu noted in an interview, the Korean War memorial says simply "Freedom is never Free." The United States has fought many wars, often even ones that barely involved them, for the cause of freedom. Israel has fought many wars, and is now trying to forge a lasting peace, to protect its people and their freedoms - with neighbors who themselves are not free. It is nearly impossible for any American, raised on the principles of freedom and liberty, to not feel a strong kinship with Israel.

Until a final resolution is reached, there will continue to be debate as to the best route to a lasting peace, should one exist. But most important for Israel, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, is that he was able to clearly transmit the principles which must guide such a peace - principles which cannot be denied, principles which are understood as fundamental concepts by the people of the United States of America: Security; self-determination; and above all, freedom.


* Ezzie: I believe I just saw someone say this, and I'm drawing a blank as to who and where. My sincere apologies.

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