WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a warm welcome Tuesday at Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, with a speech that combined pep rally with policy following months of tensions within the American Jewish community and between the United States and Israel.
A day after his closely scrutinized meeting with President Barack Obama, a noticeably relaxed-looking prime minister addressed a friendly audience of some 3,000 lay leaders, Jewish organizational professionals, and college students on the closing day of the annual gathering.
Following a White House visit that yielded no fireworks – and even some friendly gestures – the gathering of Jewish community representatives applauded heavily when Netanyahu spoke about the Monday meeting with Obama, and highlighted the positive nature of their talks and the strength of US-Israel relations. After months of open acrimony, a crowd that rose quickly to its feet to sing Hatikvah and the Star-Spangled Banner seemed relieved to put those tensions behind them.
Netanyahu, in turn, played to the crowd – addressing topic after topic that struck home to North American Jewry. He received applause for asserting a strong commitment to Jewish pluralism, and brought the crowd to its feet when he told them, pushing his uncharacteristically hoarse voice to preaching proportions, to denounce Israel’s detractors and proclaim that “we have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of.”
He maintained pep-rally mode, as he offered shout-outs to various youth-oriented programs, and when participants in the Masa program cheered loudly, he ad-libbed, telling them to “keep going, don’t stop.”
The prime minister’s speech was notably upbeat – a striking departure from previous addresses on US soil which tended to stress the dangers facing Israel rather than Israel’s accomplishments. If the prime minister was careful to keep the acrimony between the US and Israel over the Iran deal far from public view during his three-day visit to Washington, he also left behind the dire warnings that he had delivered in speeches made before the controversial deal was finalized.
Instead, in Netanyahu’s one major speech to an American Jewish organization during his trip, the message was one of optimism – looking to a positive future and emphasizing Israel’s accomplishments and assets rather than the risks facing it. If the post-Iran deal Netanyahu is transforming into one who makes US Jews feel good about Israel’s future rather than fear its destruction at the hands of its enemies, it was a Netanyahu that this audience seemed eager to embrace.