Netanyahu at AIPAC: The Good, the Bad and the Bubble

Five comments on a beautiful Israeli-American friendship that’s overshadowed by the problematic personalities of the countries' leaders

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saluting the crowd during his speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference, March 6, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saluting the crowd during his speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference, March 6, 2018.Credit: Jose Luis Magana/AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

1. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on a stellar performance at this week’s annual AIPAC conference. He was in his element. At his best. Netanyahu not only gave his audience a turbo-charged “We will bury you”-type speech on Iran. He also spiced it up with his own TED Talk rendition of “Startup Nation,” garnished with effusive praise for America and its president. The only place Netanyahu can get such roars of approval in Israel these days is the Likud Central Committee, but there he needs to sweat more and produce a steady stream of anti-leftist invective in order to get the same kind of enthusiastic rise.

Perhaps there was a hint of desperation that fueled Netanyahu’s performance. Perhaps he realized, as Anshel Pfeffer wrote, that this was his last hurrah. The entire experience for Netanyahu was bittersweet at best. Here he was, welcomed like a conquering caesar in the Roman Senate by thousands of members of the greatest pro-Israel body in history. And there in Israel he’ll soon be, besieged once again by a manic media, relentless police investigators and agitated Israeli politicians who are beginning to suspect his time has come.

After his AIPAC high, Netanyahu can look forward to falling back into the cesspool of his myriad corruption probes, in which he is fighting for his life.

2. The same dissonance played out on Israeli television screens on Tuesday night. Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech – hitherto an event that was sure to open the news – played second and third fiddle to the continuing saga of Netanyahu’s investigations.

For Netanyahu supporters, the media focus on the potentially sensational and damning testimony being provided to the police by state witness Nir Hefetz, the prime minister’s close confidant, was simply further proof of the leftist-inspired witch hunt that’s out to get him. For the rest of the country, the AIPAC conference may as well have been taking place on another planet.

AIPAC’s Israel is the one that’s on display: A regional superpower that faces threats that in AIPAC-land are always extra-existential; a global powerhouse of high-tech technology, without which the world would still be living in darkness; and a model of democracy of which Jefferson and Madison would be proud. Many Israelis probably concur with the general vision – it’s just not part of their everyday lives.

The reverse, of course, is true for the AIPAC delegates as well. They are mesmerized by the heroic Israel that is shown on screen, and by the words of leading U.S. senators and congressmen from the podium, their admiration reinforced by the sanitized and glorified version of the Jewish state they see when they come on their tours. They turn a blind eye to fractured Israeli society, Netanyahu’s assault on democracy, the dangerous rise of religion-based, ethnocentric nationalism he has generated, and, generally speaking, to the occupation. It is easier to admire Israel when one is exposed only to the good sides of the story.

3. Ironically, this was the conference in which AIPAC was meant to reconnect to Democrats in general and to progressives in particular. Democratic Israel-supporting legislators were trotted out like trophies. AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr went so far as to wholeheartedly endorse a two-state solution – a position that, as Jewish settlers quickly pointed out, deviated from those of both the Israeli and U.S. governments.

But it was mission impossible from the outset: AIPAC’s support for the positions vigorously pronounced by Netanyahu from the podium goes way beyond mandatory support for the policies of whatever Israeli government is in power. Netanyahu’s presentation of a blameless Israel surrounded by mortal enemies is not only his political line, but the foundational credo of AIPAC as well.

Like Netanyahu and his supporters, AIPAC members don’t need or want to hear about Israeli soldiers lording over Palestinians for half a century, the slippery slope toward a one-state nightmare, or the continuing degradation of Israel democracy and its civic norms. Many of them simply adopt Netanyahu’s assertion that such sour doomsday predictions do the work of Israel’s enemies.

Never mind that so many AIPAC delegates thought it proper to applaud Sen. Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky) when he said the Obama administration hadn’t been an ally of Israel, or to give such a rousing reception to U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who – together with his Israeli counterpart Ron Dermer – represents the evangelical-settler axis in both Jerusalem and Washington. The fact that Friedman used the occasion to savage the leftist-Zionist J Street for its “pro-Israel, pro-peace” slogan was, after all, vintage Netanyahu rabble-rousing.

4. At its core, the AIPAC conference is still a celebration of the truly remarkable relationship between Israel and the United States. The lobby may find itself sidelined in the wake of its perceived failure to block the Iran deal, and as a result of the extraordinarily intimate relations between Netanyahu and the Trump administration. But it is still provides an impressive showcase for the deep and abiding ties between the two countries, which, both sides assert, have never been better.

In some ways, the declaration is undoubtedly true, certainly when viewed through right-wing eyes. In the history of relations with Likud prime ministers, from Menachem Begin onward, no U.S. president has talked the Israeli right-wing talk like Donald Trump. From moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, through ignoring the settlements to total abstinence from reprimanding Israel for its behavior, Trump is Netanyahu’s dream come true. In a world in which the word is mightier than the deed, and the justness of Israel’s cause takes precedence over actually safeguarding its future, Trump is indeed a leader worthy of Netanyahu’s fawning comparisons to Persian King Cyrus and Lord Arthur Balfour.

In the real world, however, Trump has yet to be tested. Although right-wingers are touting him as a righteous among the nations, Trump has yet to be called into any real action as far as Israel is concerned. He hasn’t done anything remotely comparable to Lyndon Johnson’s supply of Phantom F-4 fighter bombers, Richard Nixon’s airlift, Jimmy Carter’s peace with Egypt, Ronald Reagan’s strategic memorandum, George H.W. Bush’s Madrid Conference, Bill Clinton’s peace with Jordan, George W. Bush’s war on terror or Barack Obama’s $38 billion defense package.

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may be of symbolic and historical significance, and revoking the Iran deal may bring joy to its opponents – but it doesn’t certify Trump as a friend in need who’s a friend indeed. Not yet, anyway.

5. Which brings us to the final and perhaps most disturbing anomaly of the AIPAC conference. Just as the image of fearless leader Netanyahu that was projected from the podium of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was far removed from the beleaguered and isolated prime minister that he is, so was the portrayal of Trump as a courageous statesman who has Israel’s back ridiculously out of step with the impulsive and erratic president most of the world sees.

The extraordinarily similar views of the world that Jerusalem and Washington share these days may delight dedicated AIPAC supporters and be a feather in Netanyahu’s cap in Israeli public opinion. But for many others, it convicts Israel by association. For progressives, Trump’s support is proof enough of Israel’s guilt, and his beautiful friendship with Netanyahu is reason enough to distrust the prime minister.

More than ever before, the AIPAC conference – at least as seen from afar – was a bubble. It extolled ties with a U.S. administration that has managed to derail the peace process from day one, refused to look at Israel as it really is, basked in an era in which the leaders in both countries are thumbing their noses in unison at international public opinion and lauded them profusely, despite the fact that both are engaged in evading justice, undermining law and order, and maliciously stirring up internal divisions and strife.

To go from there to claiming to represent the bulk of America’s liberal-minded, Trump-detesting, two state-supporting Jews is a tall order indeed.

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