Bibi’s Churchill Moment
The Israeli prime minister is about to make history by addressing Congress for the third time. The only other foreign leader to do that? Winston Churchill.
If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes his place behind the podium to address Congress on Feb. 11, he will tie Winston Churchill for the record of most addresses by a foreign leader in American history. Netanyahu’s many critics may find that galling, but the Israeli leader and his supporters will argue that the link between the two men is well deserved.
The invitation for what would be Netanyahu’s third address to a joint session of Congress came from House Speaker John Boehner as a rebuttal to U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union promise that, to protect the “chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran,” he would veto any new sanctions on Tehran. In Boehner’s announcement Wednesday morning, Jan. 21, to members of the House Republican Conference, Boehner said he wants “the prime minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” In effect, the leader of the Republican majority in the House will be giving a foreign leader the chance to directly lobby hundreds of lawmakers on a piece of pending — and enormously controversial — legislation.
Netanyahu last spoke to Congress in May 2011, when he said future peace talks with the Palestinians depended on their leader, Mahmoud Abbas, accepting Israel as a Jewish state. (Abbas has consistently refused to do so.) The speech was so well received that the New York Times said, “Netanyahu received so many standing ovations that at times it appeared that the lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up.”
That the new invitation would place Netanyahu in the company of one of the most lionized wartime leaders in modern history, while probably not an immediate consideration for Boehner, certainly fits a characterization that the Israeli prime minister has himself trotted out. (For the record, random people on Twitter seem to fulsomely agree, though others disagree just as strongly.) A portrait of Churchill reportedly sits next to one of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, behind Netanyahu’s desk, as figures who were able to see “danger in time,” as Netanyahu puts it, and change the course of history. In a speech before the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in 2006, Netanyahu said, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And it’s racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.”
Indeed, Netanyahu has made liberal use of the Nazi example as part of his campaign to undercut the negotiations with Iran, pitching himself as a lone Cassandra warning against an imminent threat to the entire world. Boehner’s invitation, no doubt, will give him another opportunity to do so.
In Churchill’s final address to Congress, in 1952, he claimed, “Bismarck once said that the supreme fact of the 19th century was that Britain and the United States spoke the same language. Let us make sure that the supreme fact of the 20th century is that they tread the same path.” Don’t be surprised if Bibi uses his superlative time at the podium to make the same pitch.
Photo illustration: Ed Johnson/Foreign Policy