WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed relaxed at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. He smiled a lot. He felt at home. Thousands of AIPAC members warmly welcomed him with sustained applause and he rewarded them with one of his staple, top-notch performances that included new rhetorical tricks as well as popular shticks from the past. The audience, it seemed, couldn’t get enough.
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Netanyahu’s calm demeanor was even more pronounced against the backdrop of the barely disguised angst of the AIPAC leadership in the wake of their failure to push the Iran sanctions bill past the U.S. Senate. While AIPAC conferences are traditionally a forum for expressing support for Israeli prime ministers and fortifying their resolve, this time the roles were reversed: It was the AIPAC people who needed to draw encouragement and strength from the prime minister.
Netanyahu didn’t break new ground or make major headlines - he pointedly failed to mention the Ukraine crisis even once - but that did not deter the Palestinians from issuing their traditional condemnation of the prime minister’s deal-breaking demands. And if there were any novelties in his address, the people who should be worried about them are to be found on Netanyahu’s right-wing flank: At times it seemed as if Shimon Peres was speaking from Netanyahu’s mouth, promoting the “fruits of peace” and serving as a salesman for a “new Middle East.” Netanyahu longingly extolled the virtues and benefits of the close collaboration that Israel would enjoy with the Gulf States and other Arab countries after peace with the Palestinians was achieved. Then he chided his audience – Bibi’s believe it or not - for not giving his rosy vision the enthusiastic reception it was due.
Netanyahu proceeded to divide the world into two: good and horrible, white and black, the children of light versus the children of darkness, the sanctifiers of life against worshippers of death, the pure and humble Israel, devoted to saving humanity, and the dark and foreboding Iran, their Satanic majesties themselves. He reiterated his call to strip Iran of any nuclear abilities and reaffirmed his support for more sanctions on Tehran, but it was nonetheless a kinder, gentler Netanyahu who was wagging his finger. He pointedly refrained from directly criticizing the U.S. administration’s nuclear negotiations or its adamant opposition to new sanctions, as he was asked, directly or implicitly, in his meetings with senior administration officials on Monday. He chose not to exacerbate tensions at this time of Ukrainian distress, and was rewarded, at the very least, with a measure of renewed goodwill and some more breathing room before the hard decisions that lay ahead.
Instead, Netanyahu focused his sights on the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which, if you listened carefully, is both repugnant and virtually anti-Semitic but also impotent and doomed to fail. Netanyahu chose to stoke the Jewish establishment’s nearly consensual anti-BDS rage, not only because it’s the popular thing to do these days, but also because it is devoid of the controversies and disagreements that surround current discussions of Iran and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu provided the anti-BDS campaign with some catchy new slogans, including “How can anyone fall for the BS in BDS?” And “BDS = bigotry, dishonesty and shame." Then, just like many web content editors interested in clicks and traffic, he stirred the crowd by saluting Hollywood bombshell and Super Bowl boycott-buster Scarlett Johansson. To show her how much he cared, he even paraphrased Rhett Butler’s famous Gone with the Wind line to Scarlett O’Hara: “Frankly, my dear I do give a damn.”
Netanyahu’s copywriter undoubtedly worked overtime for this speech, either in the PM’s office or inside his head, but at times he may have been trying too hard. Netanyahu, who sometimes takes a juvenile delight in showing off his linguistic virtuosity in modern Americanese, first regurgitated his successful “nuclear duck” analogy and then took the famous Budweiser slogan “This Bud’s for you” and turned into a flippant warning against the Iranian ICBM program, which Netanyahu asserts will be aimed at America. “This Scud’s for you”, he said.
That was a bridge too far, even for his adoring AIPAC audience. When an embarrassed Netanyahu noticed the dearth of laughter, he tried to explain it away by saying that “only the Americans got the joke.” Of course, the opposite was true: the Americans were clearly embarrassed at the politically incorrect use of a trivial Budweiser slogan in the context of potentially deadly Iranian missiles. The people guffawing must have been the multitudes of Netanyahu’s entourage along with other Israelis in the audience who share his sense of humor and purity of heart.