Netanyahu May Be Superman at AIPAC, but He's No Churchill

Israeli prime ministers love nothing more than the rock star reception they receive at AIPAC's annual conference - this is especially true for Netanyahu, and it's even truer this year.

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Netanyahu speaking at the annual AIPAC policy conference, Washington D.C., March 2, 2015.Credit: Bloomberg
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

WASHINGTON — There’s nothing Israeli prime ministers love more than addressing the annual AIPAC conference in Washington. Like Superman, who on his native planet of Krypton was an ordinary mortal but on Earth acquired superpowers, so it is with Israeli prime ministers. In Jerusalem they are gray politicians who must struggle with everyday troubles, but at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference they turn into rock stars.

This is especially true for Netanyahu, and it’s even truer this year. There is no comparing the warm, excited and welcoming atmosphere on Monday, in a hall packed with 16,000 pro-Israel Americans to the gloomy, tired and poorly attended Likud election campaign events of recent weeks.

Netanyahu’s address Monday was just an appetizer ahead of the more important speech to the U.S. Congress today. He did not elaborate on the Iranian issue, apparently reserving the heavy weapons for the members of Congress. Instead he tried to justify his controversial and politically charged Congress speech.

Netanyahu praised U.S. President Barack Obama for his assistance to Israel on defense and diplomatic issues, saying his address to Congress was not meant as an act of disrespect. He added that his speech was not aimed at inserting Israel into the American partisan debate and expressed regret that “some people have misperceived” his arrival in Washington as an attempt to make Israel a partisan issue.

It seems that the main goal of Monday's speech was to try to reduce the tension between Netanyahu and the Obama administration. The problem is that large parts of his remarks sounded disingenuous, as though at issue was some small misunderstanding that had been blown out of proportion. Netanyahu’s comments were too little, too late. Even if he repeats them 200 times, it’s doubtful the current occupant of the White House will be convinced.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to take Netanyahu’s message of reassurance and reconciliation seriously is the praise he heaped on Ron Dermer, the ambassador to the United States and the man who cooked up the address to Congress with Republican leaders behind the back of the White House.

“I couldn’t be prouder to have you representing Israel in Washington,” Netanyahu said in his speech. But Dermer has become persona non grata for the Obama administration. For all that Netanyahu may love Dermer, if he wins reelection he will probably have to replace Israel’s ambassador to Washington.

U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner said Monday that he plans to give Netanyahu a statuette of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the short ceremony to be held before the Israeli leader’s speech to Congress. With regard to Netanyahu, it’s hard to imagine a greater cliché than that.

As in his AIPAC speech on Monday, when Netanyahu addresses Congress he will portray Iran as an existential threat to Israel and himself as responsible for the survival of a Jewish state that is one step away from destruction. To AIPAC, Netanyahu compared himself to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, but the latter never spoke that way, even during much more difficult periods in Israel’s history, when it was surrounded by hostile armies preparing for war.

One wonders what Churchill would have thought of Netanyahu’s message to Israeli citizens and of his general conduct on the Iranian issue. During World War II the British prime minister spoke of “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” but he didn’t scare his people every day by saying that Germany was about to destroy them. Netanyahu might know how to make a speech, but Churchill he ain’t.

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