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February 1, 2015 5:35 pm

Iran Threat – When Principle Trumps Protocol

avatar by Moshe Phillips and Benyamin Korn

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Obama administration officials have strongly expressed opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming address at Congress in which he is to discuss the Iranian nuclear threat. Photo: Cherie Cullen.

Are there circumstances under which breaching diplomatic protocol is justified, even if it offends a friendly government?

In recent days, Obama administration officials have loudly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for accepting an invitation to address the United States Congress about the Iranian nuclear threat, without first consulting the White House. But one US official’s own track record on the subject raises some interesting questions.

One may safely assume that Prime Minister Netanyahu realized, in advance, that the White House would vehemently object when the invitation was announced. After all, he has served as prime minister twice before, and has had to manage some occasionally rocky periods in the relationship between the Israeli and American governments.

Having been raised in the United States, Netanyahu has a particularly deep understanding of American politics and is acutely sensitive to the twists and turns of the political and diplomatic currents flowing between Washington and Jerusalem. He is far too experienced and sophisticated to just stumble blindly into a controversy of this nature. He had to have known what he was getting into by accepting the invitation.

Moreover, Prime Minister Netanyahu had to have known that this administration in particular would react strongly. He has dealt extensively with President Obama and US Mideast negotiators. He has been the target of their barbs and pressure before. He has bent over backwards in his efforts to please them — by agreeing to accept a (demilitarized) Palestinian state, by freeing imprisoned Arab terrorists, by freezing construction in Judea-Samaria, and more.

Yet he even though he surely anticipated the hurricane of criticism he is now enduring, Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted the invitation. He must perceive the Iranian nuclear threat, and the danger of US concessions to Iran, as such a serious danger that he had no choice but to breach protocol.

He knew that if he consulted the White House first, Obama would object. So rather than set up a situation where he was forced to clash directly with the president, he opted to breach protocol. With Israel’s very existence on the line, Netanyahu felt he had to act. Principle trumped protocol.

Daniel Kurtzer, the former US ambassador to Israel, has strongly criticized Israel for this breach. But surely he understands the wrenching dilemma one faces when principles clash with protocol. He has faced such trying situations in his own political life.

In 1978, Kurtzer, who was just 29 years old, was the youngest-ever dean of Yeshiva College, the undergraduate division of Yeshiva University. That spring, the Y.U. administration decided to present an honorary doctorate to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

It was a particularly difficult period in US-Israel relations. In March, Palestinian terrorists infiltrating Israel from Lebanon murdered Gail Rubin –the niece of U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff– and 37 other innocent people in the attack known as the Tel Aviv Highway Massacre. The Israelis responded by launching a major military action against PLO terror bases in Lebanon.  President Jimmy Carter pressured Israel to halt its operation prematurely and to withdraw its forces from the buffer zone along the Israel-Lebanon border.

That same spring –shortly before the Y.U. ceremony honoring Begin– President Carter announced plans to sell advanced U.S. jet fighters to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of which were at war with Israel. American Jews protested vigorously, but to no avail.

For Prime Minister Begin, the honorary doctorate conferred by Yeshiva University was not just another plaque for his wall. It was a powerful and timely gesture of support and affection by American Jews for Israel’s embattled prime minister.

For Kurtzer, however, it was a difficult moment. The Y.U. student newspaper, The Commentator, reported (May 17, 1978) what happened at the Begin ceremony:  “Dr. Daniel Kurtzer, Dean of Yeshiva College, was conspicuously absent from the proceedings. A reliable source informed The Commentator that due to political differences with the prime minister, the dean would not attend.”

One may assume it was not an easy decision for Kurtzer to make. The young dean must have worried how it would affect his position at the university. But sometimes, principles trump protocol. Sometimes, a public figure feels so strongly about a particular issue, that he is willing to breach protocol. Kurtzer obviously had very strong opinions concerning Israel’s prime minister in 1978. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of his decision or the positions he took in 1978, it was an instructive episode which should be considered in the context of what is happening now.

The authors are president and chairman, respectively, of the Religious Zionists of America, Philadelphia, and candidates on the Religious Zionist slate (www.VoteTorah.org) in the current U.S. World Zionist Congress elections.

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