This week, the prime minister of a foreign country, Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed Congress and received 31 standing ovations. How did he earn them?
Netanyahu held a mirror up to the United States, inviting Americans to see themselves as Israelis see them. For Israelis, America’s image is familiar and overwhelmingly positive. The values that inspire both societies are the same. Nearly 4,000 years ago, the hand of Moses
inscribed the word of God, “proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Two hundred fifty years ago, men in Philadelphia inscribed those words upon a bell they hung in Independence Hall. Both Israel and the United States believe that the foundations of national strength and prosperity are “liberty and justice for all.”
In much of the world, even in other democracies, calls for Israel’s destruction are met with silent acquiescence. Cynics and hypocrites even condemn Israel for “human rights violations” when it fights terrorists who target innocent Israeli civilians.
“But not you,” said Netanyahu. “Not America.” America is different. Americans understand the meaning of two lines in the last stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (when free men shall stand/Between their loved home and the war's desolation
) -- free men who are in the right deserve America’s support.
Netanyahu, representative of a distant outpost of liberty, portrayed an America that is the global bulwark of liberty in a world increasingly threatened by a rising authoritarian tide. He reminded Americans that their own welfare depends on the welfare of freedom throughout the world. In rising to applaud him. Senators and congressmen from both sides of the aisle rose to reaffirm their commitment to freedom around the world. Together, the prime minister of Israel and the Congress of the United States affirmed the essential goodness of the values on which America and Israel are founded.
One wishes America’s president could do as well.
Netanyahu came to Washington to put his people’s case directly before America. President Barack Obama left him no choice. Obama has adopted the Palestinian narrative, in which Israel, America’s democratic ally, is in the wrong. Netanyahu defied Obama’s demand to retreat to the 1967 lines, which an Israeli foreign minister once defined as “Auschwitz lines,” and received applause from both sides of the aisle in Congress. The political weight of Obama’s demand is now close to zero.
Obama’s much-touted Middle East speech turned into a debacle, because his advocacy of liberty carries no conviction. He did promise Egypt and Tunisia $2 billion, which one hopes will be used to strengthen, not undermine democracy. But he waffled on Syria and Iran and tried, and failed, to undermine Israel. Arabs, Israelis and Europeans will now consider his positions irrelevant. That’s bad for the United States. Obama would have done better not to speak at all.
The key to leadership in a democracy is to reaffirm the people’s values, and challenge them to live up to those values. Obama is a gifted speaker, but he’s never affirmed the essential goodness of mainstream America with the conviction that Netanyahu displayed in Congress. Perhaps he does not share that conviction. That’s a serious flaw in his leadership in these challenging times.
Yitzhak Klein heads the Israel Policy Center, www.merkazmedini.org, a conservative think-tank in Jerusalem.
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