An Israeli Premier Hounded by Corruption Probes Spoke at AIPAC Before. It Didn't Get Him Very Far

Hoping to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Olmert, Netanyahu sees the pro-Israel lobby's annual conference as the perfect place to escape his domestic woes

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, June 2012.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

WASHINGTON – June 2008 wasn’t an easy month for Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. His public approval rating was tanking, the media was uncovering new details about his corruption cases on a daily basis, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Israel’s attorney general moved to indict him for bribery.

Yet on June 4, Olmert received a standing ovation from thousands of people gathered at a conference center in Washington. It was probably the only place left on Earth where he could receive such a warm welcome: The annual policy conference of AIPAC, the strongest pro-Israel lobby group in the United States.

Olmert spoke for more than 30 minutes – touching on many issues that could just as easily have been included in a speech written today.

He warned about the danger posed to Israel by Iran’s nuclear program, urging the U.S. Congress and European countries to impose tougher sanctions on the Islamic republic. He expressed hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, hailing the positive influence countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt might have on the “peace process.” He thanked then-President George W. Bush for being a true friend to Israel and for an “inspiring, memorable” speech Bush had delivered in the Knesset a month earlier during a visit to Jerusalem.

But one issue was conspicuously absent from Olmert’s speech: the corruption probes against him dominating the Israeli media at the time. His only hint to the subject came at the very end of his remarks, when he stated that in light of “the political developments” in Israel, he had “hesitated as to whether it was the right time and the right thing” to come to AIPAC.

The previous year, 2007, he had skipped the conference and spoke via satellite from Jerusalem. But he told delegates in 2008 that, after a brief hesitation, he knew he had to attend this time. “Israeli politics is accustomed to all kinds of trials and tribulations, but your love and support for the State of Israel provides a powerful foundation, a solid rock on which we know we can always rely, in good times and in times of crisis,” he told delegates.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressing the AIPAC policy conference in June 2008.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Ten years on, that AIPAC scene is about to be repeated. This time, though, it will be Olmert’s replacement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing delegates as he is under investigation in four separate corruption cases.

Netanyahu will leave for Washington this Saturday, nearly three weeks after Israeli police recommended that he be indicted on two separate charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and following a further police grilling this week about two other corruption cases (one involving the Israeli purchase of submarines and naval vessels from a German company; the other concerning allegations that Netanyahu received favorable coverage from a popular news website, Walla, in exchange for giving lucrative financial benefits to its parent company, Bezeq).

Changing the agenda

Just like Olmert, Netanyahu will be speaking live at AIPAC after skipping the previous year’s event (and the one before, in Netanyahu’s case). His office says the main reason for this year’s appearance is the opportunity it provides to meet with President Donald Trump during his Washington visit as well.

However, some experts believe the Washington visit – with a warmly received speech in front of thousands of pro-Israel Jewish Americans – might help Netanyahu change the news agenda in Israel from that of corruption probes to foreign policy.

“Israeli prime ministers have always known that the best cure for political troubles at home is a quick visit abroad,” says Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and who spent 26 years in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The warm reception they receive as leaders of a friendly state is utilized to convince the public in Israel that the prime minister continues to function efficiently, and therefore should not be replaced – for the time being.”

Lipner says that while meetings between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents “are always important,” he believes Netanyahu’s upcoming trip is also the result of his wish to present himself to the Israeli public as a “diplomatic asset” – based on both his popularity at AIPAC and his relations with the Trump administration.

He adds that Netanyahu and Trump are pushing back against calls to impeach or replace them, and their upcoming meeting will allow both of them to demonstrate that it’s “business as usual.”

A former Netanyahu aide, who requested not to be named for this article, believes “this is going to be a critical trip” for the prime minister.

“The most important part of it will be the meeting with Trump – but his appearance before AIPAC will be just as important,” the former aide notes. “Netanyahu currently has a strong grip on his right-wing base, but approximately 50 percent of the Israeli public wants him to resign. He needs to remind Israelis why he claims to be the only person who can lead them at this time. And that’s what the AIPAC speech will be focused on.”

News stories published before Olmert’s departure to Washington in 2008 framed his trip in similar terms. “Olmert boarded his plane looking calm and presenting a ‘business as usual’ [vibe] to the reporters traveling with him,” Israeli newspaper Maariv reported. “The trip will focus on urgent security issues, but will also allow him to take a break from the investigations and headlines in Israel.”

One key difference between Olmert’s situation in 2008 and Netanyahu now is that Olmert’s governing coalition was already beginning to crack. Senior ministers in his government were already briefing the media against him and calling on his party, Kadima, to replace him with another politician. For the time being at least, Netanyahu still has a firm grip on his own coalition. None of his main coalition partners have publicly called on him to step aside or resign, even though in private some have reportedly expressed shock and disappointment in light of the details emerging about the investigations.

Olmert’s 2008 visit didn’t help him shift the conversation in Israel for more than 72 hours. His AIPAC speech and his meetings with President Bush and that year’s two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, did indeed generate headlines. But even before his return to Israel, new details emerged from his investigations that proceeded to dominate the media.

It remains to be seen if Netanyahu will enjoy more success in utilizing his U.S. visit to change the focus of Israel’s main news broadcasts.