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Netanyahu speech was a failed dilemma action

If the return of House of Cards last week wasn’t enough, then House Majority leader John Boehner’s unprecedented decision to bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress this week should be a hearty reminder that nonviolent direct action is not relegated to skilled revolutionaries or angry protesters. Republicans can do it too.

Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address in late January, a speech noted for its rebuke of Republican-imposed roadblocks on legislation and promise to pursue executive action in the absence of congressional approval. Ostensibly, Netanyahu was invited to shed some light on the nuclear talks between the United States and Iran currently taking place in Montreux, Switzerland.

Absent much veneer, though, Boehner’s invitation was a clear power play against the Democrats and Obama, whom Boehner also called on to meet with Netanyahu during his visit. The logic was that of a dilemma action: Render your opponents damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Should Obama refuse to meet (which he did) and Democrats oppose the speech (which some did), Republicans, the logic went, could polarize congressional and popular opinion around foreign policy to their advantage. Boehner’s hope was to alienate Democrats from a key U.S. ally, well-funded Jewish lobbying bodies like AIPAC, and the American Jewish community writ large.

The tactic is a good one, but it didn’t work. For one, Netanyahu — leader of the conservative Likud party — faces a hotly contested election in Israel on March 17. David Miles explained the situation for the Huffington Post, writing, “According Netanyahu a party political platform to address voters shortly before Israel goes to the polls in a tight election illustrates the myopia of the GOP in seeing Israel only through Bibi-tinted spectacles.”

Even politicians who are ordinarily hawks on Israel have boycotted the speech on the grounds of process. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from New Jersey, described herself as a “fierce supporter of Israel,” but was “disappointed in Speaker Boehner’s efforts to drag Prime Minister Netanyahu into the GOP’s endless efforts to undermine President Obama.” Another Democratic boycotter, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, was clear to say that “My decision not to attend is not a reflection of my support for Israel and its continued existence as a state for the Jewish People.” In all, 56 Congressional Democrats chose to boycott Netanyahu’s address.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that two-thirds of Democrats disapproved of the speech, with just 12 percent holding a positive view of Netanyahu. Sixty-six percent of Democrats also thought that Obama should have been consulted on the invitation before it was extended. And 48 percent of all Americans agreed. Given the fact that roughly seven in 10 American Jews identify as Democrats, the GOP’s attempt to pit Jews against the party with which they share a historic affinity is a severe miscalculation at best. Rather than dividing Democrats against Jews, Boehner’s hubris has provided a rare “big tent” to openly question the United States’ often-unflinching support for the Israeli government.

Emily Mayer is a Philadelphia-based organizer with If Not Now, a group of young American Jews that, as the war in Gaza flared last summer, held a series of religiously-themed demonstrations calling on major Jewish American institutions to withdraw their support from the occupation of Palestine. “I think what Boehner overestimated,” she explained, “is the amount that American Jews’ political allegiance rests only on the issue of Israel, and that … Israel will dictate how American Jews make their political and financial decisions.”

According to the Jewish Daily Forward, major Jewish American organizations came out against the speech, including the Union for Reform Judaism and the Anti-Defamation League. Pro-Peace groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace and Code Pink also held demonstrations in Washington, D.C., yesterday to voice their opposition to the speech. What’s more, many young and progressive Jews, on the Internet and in the streets, have rallied under the banner “Bibi Doesn’t Speak for Me,” a response to the Prime Minister’s common claims to stand for all of world Jewry.

Before leaving for the trip, Netanyahu said in a press statement that “I feel that I am the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, of the entire Jewish People.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein took issue with this stance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” saying that “the Jewish community is like any other community, there are different points of view.”

As evidenced by groups like If Not Now, Jewish Voices for Peace and J Street, there is a growing vocal disconnect between young Jews’ cultural and religious identity and the U.S. government’s long-unquestioned allegiance to the Israeli government.

“I think that we’re going to see more and more young Jews coming out and saying that the actions of the Israeli government do not speak for me and also feel an obligation to speak out against them because they claim to speak for us,” Mayer said, adding, “and that’s immensely powerful.”