When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went before a joint meeting of Congress in March to outline his opposition to a possible nuclear agreement with Iran, fawning lawmakers received him as Joshua, the conqueror of Jericho; Gideon, the wily military leader against Israel’s enemies; and Samson, the extraordinarily strong vanquisher of Philistines, all rolled into one.
Netanyahu returns to Washington to be received at the White House on Monday. He leaves behind a homeland racked by deadly waves of stabbings, shootings and car rammings. Michael Herzog, retired Israel Defense Forces brigadier general and son of Israel’s president from 1983 to 1993, told Politico that the “whole eruption” in Israel represents “young people . . . taking matters into their own hand out of frustration, incitement, and various other reasons.” He said, “It could go on, this low-key four, five, six incidents a day, for quite a while.”
A far cry from the foreign threat that brought Netanyahu to Washington in the winter.
Much has happened since the perfume of honeysuckles in March gave way to November’s smoky bonfires.
Then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), mastermind of Netanyahu’s March 3 White House end run to Congress, is out of office.
The nuclear deal that Netanyahu and congressional Republicans tried to derail is in effect.
And then there was the less noticeable Oct. 10 event on Capitol Hill that drew attention to Israel, though not by name.
The occasion was the gathering of thousands of mostly African American men at the west front of the Capitol to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March.
One speaker, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago — and President Obama’s pastor until 2008 — used the occasion to deliver a paean to the Palestinians.
Whether Wright’s speech hit the mark with those in attendance is open to speculation. There was, however, no mistaking his aim: to equate and link the plight of Palestinians in the Middle East with the quest of blacks for full equality in the United States.
“The youth in Ferguson and the youth in Palestine have united together to remind us that the dots need to be connected,” Wright told the crowd, according to media reports.
Citing what he called the “three-headed demon” of “racism, militarism and capitalism,” Wright implored the gathering to “stand beside our Palestinian brothers and sisters, who have been done one of the most egregious injustices in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
“Apartheid is going on in Palestine,” Wright said. “As we sit here, there is an apartheid wall being built twice the size of the Berlin Wall in height, keeping Palestinians off of illegally occupied territories, where the Europeans” — presumably Israelis — “have claimed that land as their own.”
Drawing on the black chant, Wright observed, “Palestinians are saying ‘Palestinian lives matter,’ ” and added, “We stand with you, we support you, we say God bless you.”
As a longtime supporter of Israel, and a believer — as Obama is — that Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, I don’t think Israel gained attention in a good way that day.
I fear the larger society, fixated on Israel’s security concerns, may be missing what’s going on here at home: a developing divergent African American perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A Pew Research Center poll this year showed that with regard to the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, 72 percent of whites had “a lot” or “some” sympathy for Israel. That number fell to 50 percent among African American respondents. What’s more, 20 percent of blacks had “a lot” of sympathy for Palestinians, but only 10 percent of white respondents reported they felt that way.
The linkage of the Black Lives Matter movement with groups that share the goal of isolating and crippling Israel through the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is the latest manifestation of this reality.
And it certainly doesn’t help black people feel much better about Israel when, according to former Obama aide Dennis Ross’s new book, “Doomed to Succeed,” national security adviser Susan Rice reportedly charged that Netanyahu’s posture against the Iran deal was outrageous — that the Israeli leader did everything but “use ‘the N-word’ in describing the president.”
Nor does it improve relations when Netanyahu’s newly appointed spokesman, Ron Baratz, suggests that Obama is anti-Semitic. What does that make the millions of white and black Americans who support the president? Baratz has since apologized, and Netanyahu said his spokesman doesn’t speak for him. Sort of like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
Obama and Netanyahu have much to talk about Monday. Their policy and personal differences, for sure. Israel’s ability to protect itself must be high on the agenda. But so should its inclination to make common cause with the Republican caucus and not the Obama-led U.S. government.
That, Netanyahu needs to understand, has both foreign and domestic ramifications.
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