Is it significant in any way that Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), who is Jewish, issued a statementThursday entitled “Why I will not be attending Israeli PM Netanyahu’s speech to Congress”? I think it is, and should be seen as just one element in a larger wave of events within the much older and decisive legacy of overwhelming American congressional support for almost anything Israel does or wants. The statement is substantive and eye-catching, and worth reading and pondering. (Rep. Yarmuth’s statement is here.)
Other congressmen and women who have said they will boycott the speech and Rep. Yarmuth’s statement represent small cracks in the single most important structure of sustained pro-Israeli sentiments in the American political system (best exemplified in the 100-0 Senate vote last summer to give Israel total support during its brutal war against Gaza). Yarmuth also speaks in public about political and electoral dynamics that generally are not discussed in the public debate in the United States.
The American Congress is to Israel almost as a woman’s womb is to a human fetus—protective, loving, all-embracing, unquestioning, nurturing and never changing. The fact that a handful of Democratic senators and representatives have already announced that they will not attend the speech, including Senate President Joe Biden, suggests that several novel developments are underway now in the almost umbilical Israel-Congress relationship in which both parties have long protected and served each other well.
Rep. Yarmuth openly states that members of Congress will be judged by some outside organizations according to their attendance or absence from the speech, and absentees might suffer electoral consequences. This, of course, is a core operating mechanism for pro-Israeli groups in the United States who use financial, political, and public opinion pressures to defeat those members of Congress (Charles Percy, Paul Findley, and others) who do not squarely and consistently line up behind the positions that the right wing in Israel dictates to them.
That Yarmuth would allude to this in his statement is itself noteworthy. It is another indication that the intimidating, punitive and vindictive methods used by pro-Zionists extremists in the United States, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to keep politicians in line are emerging from the shadows and being transformed into issues of legitimate public debate and analysis.
Also significant is the very delicate point that Yarmuth referred to in an oblique way, which is that members of Congress might find themselves uncomfortably caught between two loyalties—to Israel and/or to the United States. He addressed this squarely and forcefully, saying, “Netanyahu will specifically be arguing against the foreign policy of the administration. Speaker Boehner invited the Prime Minister to address Congress specifically to refute President Obama’s position. I will not contribute to the impression that this body does not support the President of the United States in foreign affairs.…The Prime Minister’s appearance will be construed by many to infer congressional support for his position as opposed to US policy. I do not want my respectful attendance to in any way imply support for his position.”
The message would seem to be that if the Israeli prime minister is forcing American elected politicians to indicate where they stand on divisive issues, like the nuclear negotiations with Iran, at least some American officials will stand by their constitutional oath to serve their own country, rather than foreign interests. He tackled this issue head-on by saying, “Congress has a broader responsibility than the security interests of Israel. While it certainly is important that we understand the Israeli perspective, the American people will hear only Netanyahu’s perspective, creating a public perception that could undermine a broadly supported resolution to the Iranian nuclear situation.”
Yarmuth mentioned other reasons why he will not attend the Netanyahu speech (we know what he will say, the Israeli elections are coming up, he has many other platforms to speak to Americans), but the most noteworthy aspect of his position is simply that he took this position in public and defended it unapologetically. The fact that he is Jewish is quite irrelevant, in my view, because he is acting as an elected official, not a religious sage.
He and some other members of Congress who have spoken out against the inappropriateness of the invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress have taken courageous and principled positions. Some of them also have taken risks, whose consequences, if any, will become clear in the next round of elections. For now, though, we should note their salutary behavior, and hope that their pioneering steps will help to expand a healthy public debate in the United States about the best policies to pursue in the Middle East for the wellbeing of all concerned—the United States, Israel, Arabs and Iran—rather than perpetuating the disfigured Congressional tradition of prioritizing Israeli wishes above most other considerations.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global