WASHINGTON, DC — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s roaringly well-received address at AIPAC’s annual policy conference on Monday was a case of rallying the home crowd ahead of his venture into more difficult territory in Congress on Tuesday. It was also, crucially, an effort to free some of Israel’s most passionate American supporters from the concern that, in endorsing Israel’s opposition to the looming US-led nuclear deal with Iran, they are risking a charge of disloyalty to their own president.
At the Washington Conference Center, there was no danger of empty seats in a room of 16,000, and no need to worry about a deficient quota of standing ovations or bursts of applause. The crowd was on its feet clapping even before he took the stage, and Netanyahu maintained their enthusiasm through what was a relatively short presentation. The speech was also absent any specifics on the Iran deal he so mistrusts. The hard rhetorical ammunition was clearly being saved for the US legislators.
The prime minister took pains to state that his decision to, essentially, lobby America’s lawmakers in public to oppose their president, “is not intended to show any disrespect for President Obama or the esteemed office he holds. I have great respect for both.” He stressed his personal appreciation for Obama, and for all the president has done for Israel. “I am deeply grateful for this support and so should you be,” he assured the huge crowd.
Nor, he went on, did he wish to see Israel become part of the partisan battleground in the US. “Israel has always been a bipartisan issue; Israel should remain a bipartisan issue,” he insisted.
Rather, the prime minister made clear, he was here to warn against the “potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel.”
He employed a map to highlight what he called Iran’s “tentacles of terror” on five continents, noted that Iran was “devouring country after country” in the region, and warned that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons “it would have the tools” to attain its goal of destroying Israel. How, he asked, could a prime minister of Israel not speak up about that kind of danger?
The heart of his speech, though, was devoted to explaining why he and the Obama administration differ over “the best way” to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons — and to paint those differences as understandable and nonthreatening to the long-term, fundamental well-being of the US-Israel relationship.
Listing the different contexts in which the US and Israel face up to the threat posed by Iran, he noted that the US is large and Israel small; that America lives in a safe neighborhood, Israel in a treacherous one; that America is the world’s strongest power while Israel, though strong, “is much more vulnerable.” And critically, he said, while “American leaders worry about the security of their country, Israeli leaders worry about the survival of our country.”
Underlining his point that the bilateral ties have known no end of ups and downs, he listed disagreements going back to 1948, over the timing of the declaration of Israel’s independence, and as recently as 2003, when Ariel Sharon completed his operation against terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, defying American demands that he halt it.
Despite all the disagreements, said Netanyahu, the friendship between the two countries has only grown stronger — because it is truly based on shared values and aspirations.
To huge applause, he highlighted Israel’s role in treating victims of the Syrian civil war while President Assad bombed them; its enabling of the region’s only growing Christian community while terrorists elsewhere behead them; its advancement of women to key positions in the judiciary, the army and business, while in other nearby nations women are repressed, enslaved and raped.
Ultimately, he said, Israel and the US will continue to stand together “because we are family” — he used the yiddish word mishpochah — rooted in a common heritage, sharing common values and destiny.
It was polished and effective performance, a home run. But, again, this was the warm-up. The real show is in Congress, and before a watching, judging audience in the White House, across America and elsewhere.
If Netanyahu is this gentle in that speech, his critics will argue with good reason that he placed Israel at the heart of a partisan row, tearing through the pro-Israel community and beyond, for no essential purpose.
But if he confronts the president’s approach on Iran too directly and too bitterly, his efforts to depict their disagreement as legitimate and temporary will be rendered disingenuous.
There is a middle path — spelling out the specifics of Israel’s concerns and objections in persuasive detail but also in terms carefully chosen to sound constructive and even empathetic to legislators and the administration. The prime minister is, of course, highly skilled for such a task. He will doubtless be choosing his words with rare care, knowing they will be subjected to almost unprecedented scrutiny.
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