WASHINGTON — Publicly savaged by President Barack Obama for his settlement policies on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday opted for a firmly non-personal response in a warmly received address to the AIPAC conference here. He argued extensively for several positions directly at odds with those held by the president, but did so without the direct targeting that Obama had employed in his incendiary Bloomberg conversation published two days earlier.
Obama, in the lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that was released precisely as Netanyahu was flying in to meet with him, had chosen to assail the prime minister for overseeing “aggressive settlement construction,” indicated that Netanyahu’s positions on the Palestinian conflict were threatening Israel’s wellbeing, and warned that the US would find it increasingly difficult to defend Israel from the international consequences.
Netanyahu, having since joined the president in their latest public dialogue of the deaf at the White House on Monday, opted to tell AIPAC Tuesday morning that he had held “very good meetings” with Obama and other senior American leaders (the only time he named Obama in the speech), insisted that he was ready to conclude “a historic peace” with the Palestinians, and hailed the uniquely “precious alliance” between the United States and Israel.
He also chose to heap praise on Secretary of State John Kerry, who must have been deeply dismayed by the president’s decision to so openly question the policies of a prime minister he has spent months gradually trying to win over, cosset and reassure.
Kerry, who delivered a very long and passionately friendly address to the AIPAC conference on Monday evening, was hailed appreciatively by Netanyahu as “the secretary of state who never sleeps” and with whom he has been working “literally day and night” to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
Strikingly, the issue of settlement building — raised repeatedly by the president in his Sunday interview as the apparent key obstacle to real progress and the key threat to Israel’s future — received not a single mention in either Kerry’s address or Netanyahu’s.
Although Netanyahu eschewed direct confrontation with Obama, he argued emphatically against the president’s stances on both Iran and the Palestinians.
Where Obama promises to ensure that Iran will not obtain nuclear weapons, Netanyahu insisted that the challenge “is not just to prevent them from having the weapon, but to prevent them from having the capacity to make the weapon.”
Where Obama says he can envisage Iran retaining an enrichment capacity under a permanent accord on its nuclear program, Netanyahu said that to allow this would be “a grave error.” It would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power, capable of breaking out to the bomb when the world’s attention was focused elsewhere, and would “open the floodgates” to nuclear proliferation. Seventeen countries worldwide have peaceful nuclear programs, Netanyahu said, without spinning centrifuges, heavy water reactors, subterranean nuclear facilities and missile research. Iran wants to keep all of those capacities, he said, because “Iran wants a military nuclear program.”
He stressed that Israel backs a diplomatic deal, provided it truly dismantles Iran’s military nuclear capabilities. But he warned, as he has from the same podium in past years, that the Jewish nation “will never be brought to the brink of extinction again” and that he would do “whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state of Israel.”
Turning to the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu set out an optimistic vision of thriving relations between Israel and parts of the Arab world — citing the potential of a combination “of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship,” and declaring that Israel’s water expertise could better the lives of hundreds of millions — if only a deal could be done.
But whereas Obama had touted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a leader demonstrably “committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve” the conflict, Netanyahu was far more skeptical. He received a standing ovation when he called on the Palestinians to “stop denying history” and urged Abbas to “recognize the Jewish state.” If Abbas would only tell his people of the Jewish nation’s sovereign rights, he could “finally make clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict. No excuses. No delays. It’s time.”
And while Obama had openly wondered whether Israel wanted to “resign” itself “to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank,” and asserted that the US had developed a security plan to “deal with potential threats to Israel,” Netanyahu highlighted Israel’s ongoing security concerns in an “unraveling” Middle East. Israel simply could not afford to bet its security “on our fondest hopes.” It was, rather, Israel’s bitterly learned obligation to prepare for the worst. If a peace deal could be signed, it would certainly come under attack from extremists, and international forces could not be trusted to secure Israel because they “go home” when under repeated attack. Only “the brave soldiers” of the IDF could truly defend Israel, he said.
Netanyahu, who had looked tense and strained at the White House on Monday, was in his element at the Washington Convention Center. A couple of his jokes fell flat, and a couple of anticipated crowd-pleasers did not produce the anticipated applause. On one occasion he even asked the audience to applaud him.
But overall, as is customary, the reception for Netanyahu was markedly more enthusiastic than for any of the conference’s other major speakers. His redefinition of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement as “Bigotry, Dishonesty and Shame,” and his callout for Scarlett Johansson (who stood by SodaStream under BDS pressure), garnered particular enthusiasm.
Reading what Obama had said Sunday must have come as quite a shock for Netanyahu — not because the president’s views were unfamiliar to him, but because the president had chosen to air them, in public, as his guest was on the way to meet him. At AIPAC on Tuesday, Netanyahu set out his contrary positions with equal fervor, but did so without getting personal.