Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lacked his most powerful tool for rousing an American Jewish crowd to its feet as he stood in front of the final plenary of the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America – his booming voice.
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The Israeli leader was uncharacteristically hoarse, after an autumn cold and the Washington chill took their toll on him. (Ironically, the tune piped in to introduce his speech was a Hebrew song called “Will You Hear My Voice?”)
His illness ended up serving him well. After the difficult year that the American Jewish community endured watching their president and the prime minister of Israel go toe-to-toe in the bitter fight over the Iran deal, many of those attending the General Assembly were ready for a quieter and gentler version of Netanyahu.
Mingling among the delegates to the 3,000-strong gathering – Jewish lay leaders, federation professionals, activists and university students – as they waited for Netanyahu to arrive, I asked them what they wanted and hoped to hear from the Israeli prime minister. They answered using phrases like “building bridges” and “healing wounds," and it was clear that they wanted – and needed – him to say positive words about President Obama.
“I don’t think that he has any idea of the damage done to the American Jewish community by turning Israel into a partisan issue,” one delegate told me. Following the knock-down drag-out congressional fight over the Iran deal pitting Democrats against Republicans, he said, “We have to face facts, Israel is simply no longer a unifying subject for American Jews.”
Given that most of the audience was dedicated to promoting unity and solidarity in their Jewish communities either as professionals or volunteers, the angry local debates over the Iran deal made their mission a lot more difficult.
Did the speech do the job when it came to smoothing things over? Some of Netanyahu's remarks did hit most of the notes that the audience of American Jews was hoping for. He sent the message that the rift with the White House was on its way to being healed by praising Obama for his commitment to maintaining Israel’s military "qualitative edge" and bolstering its security "at a time when the Middle East is becoming more dangerous than ever.”
A crowd favorite was the line: “Israel has no better friend than America and America has no better friend than Israel.”
The speech was packed with sure-fire applause lines, and Netanyahu managed to bring the crowd to its feet one time, when he called on them to “stand up” against slander about Israel.
Much of the speech was predictably vintage Netanyahu, extolling the virtues of the Israeli start-up nation, bragging that Israel’s cutting-edge technology on saving water was bringing countries from Asia and Africa to their doorstep, eager to learn how they do it. He called out anti-Semitism and BDS, and blamed the lack of progress on peace on the Palestinians, saying that Israel had managed to make peace with any Arab leader who had come to it with a sincere desire to move forward. He said that it was the inability of Arabs to recognize a Jewish state, not settlements, that stood in the way of peace.
Depending on whether or not they were Bibi fans – and the GA crowd included both admirers and detractors – the litany of Netanyahu “greatest hits” were reassuring or eye-rollingly predictable.
But there also seemed to be tacit acknowledgement of what he had put American Jews through. "No matter what disagreements there have been within the Jewish community, maintaining the unity of our people is of paramount importance. Now more than ever we must work together to unite the Jewish people and secure the Jewish state.”
There was one big sign the prime minister recognized that some serious reconciliation between his government and North American Jewry was in order, and that the same old list of platitudes wouldn’t suffice. His olive branch: a declaration that “As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel — Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews.” He has made similar statements of support before – backing it up with a commitment to take action: “For the first time, the government of Israel is joining, with the Jewish Agency, to invest in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel.”
After the speech, most GA attendees seemed satisfied. “Bibi? He’s the man!” a group of 30-something men from New Jersey responded when asked what they thought of the speech.
Some said they felt a sense of relief that the speech indicated that the Israel-Diaspora relationship was back on track. While Netanyahu referred to the need to make sure Iran keeps its commitments under the deal, discussion of Iran was negligible compared to previous Netanyahu speeches packed with discussions of centrifuges and homicidal ayatollahs.
For Alex Shapiro, who came to the GA from Salt Lake CIty, Utah, that was a sign that the Israeli prime minister “was saying what a lot of Federations leaders are saying: the Iran deal fight happened, it was unpleasant, there was strife, now let’s put it behind us.”
Meredith Dragon from the Western Massachusetts Federation said that after Netanyahu’s last few speeches “were all about Iran. I have to say it felt good to hear him talk about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, and the relationship between Israel and American Jews. It was a good start. But getting past what happened this year is going to take more than one speech.”