WASHINGTON – If anyone needs to be concerned about the address Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered at AIPAC’s annual policy conference on Tuesday, it’s the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea and Samaria and the settlers’ caucus in the Knesset. For the first time in a major speech, Netanyahu used “leftist” language and stressed “the fruits of peace” that Israel will enjoy if it reaches an agreement with the Palestinians. For a moment one could have thought that it was Shimon Peres at the podium or, God forbid, John Kerry.
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When, a year ago, Netanyahu began referring in nearly every speech to the need to prevent Israel from becoming a binational state, the settler council’s diplomatic envoy, Danny Dayan, told me that this was evidence of Netanyahu’s conceptual shift. If alarm bells were beginning to sound among the settler leadership back then, Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech will be setting off sirens on the right.
The prime minister explained at length how a peace treaty would favorably impact Israel’s economy. He spoke of the improvement in Israel’s regional and international status and the potential for public alliances with the Sunni Arab nations in the Persian Gulf – countries that see Iran as their real enemy, and that believe that economic, diplomatic and security ties with Israel could serve their interests.
With this address, Netanyahu continued his very slow but steady move toward the Israeli center; toward those 65 percent of Israelis who support a division of the land but are skeptical about the ability to realize that vision. This is the Israeli majority that admires the settlers but does not identify with their enterprise; that is shocked by the terror wrought by “price tag” attackers; who fear international isolation and boycotts and who want to lead a normal life in a democratic country.
Netanyahu made these remarks in a speech in English to 15,000 American Jews. It remains to be seen whether he will repeat the same statements in Hebrew from the Knesset podium. That would be another indication of his seriousness. The prime minister frequently criticizes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for saying one thing in English, but another thing in Arabic. You’ve got to practice what you preach.
One is still left to wonder whether Netanyahu’s shift is too slow; whether he’s internalizing the situation at a pace fast enough to still catch the two-state-solution train. The risk is that Netanyahu’s hesitation will mean that by the time he gets to the station, that train will have pulled out and instead there will be another train heading in a different, unpleasant direction.
Netanyahu spent a significant part of his speech – more than seven minutes – speaking about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. This is probably the most attention that any Israeli prime minister has devoted to that small band of a few hundred international activists who are targeting their actions against the entire State of Israel, as opposed to the 95 percent who criticize Israel but focus their boycott activity against the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
Netanyahu vehemently criticized those calling to boycott Israel as a whole, accusing them of anti-Semitism – and thus provided an incredible service to that same group of extremists that opposes the two-state solution. For them, it was a public relations coup that topped anything that could have been delivered from anyone else in the world. The prime minister stated several times that the BDS movement would fail, but the more he elaborated on the issue, the more he revealed just how worried he is that these activists will actually succeed in their efforts to isolate Israel and portray it as an apartheid state.
One last thing. Netanyahu’s polished and eloquent speech to the AIPAC conference proved once again that he is most in his element when speaking in English to an American audience. He was relaxed and spoke freely, peppering his speech with contemporary American slang. One can’t recall Netanyahu ever speaking that way in Hebrew. Although his speech was excellent, many Israelis listening to it were making cynical remarks or snorting contemptuously. The enthusiastic response of the thousands-strong audience reminds us that Netanyahu is far more popular as prime minister of the Diaspora than as prime minister of Israel.