Analysis

Netanyahu Bids AIPAC Farewell With His 'Terminator' Speech

The prime minister was so unwilling to accept that this could be his last, legacy-defining speech to a U.S. audience, he refused to say anything new

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC Policy Conference, March 6, 2018.
CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

Few politicians have ever spent as much time and resources studying and perfecting the art of speechmaking as Benjamin Netanyahu. Thirty-four years ago, his team at the Israeli representation to the United Nations was largely devoted to researching and writing the ambassador’s speech, trawling the Arab media for damning quotes he could use, and producing videos and props for his beloved visual aids.

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Decades have passed, and nothing changes or is left to chance. Each modulated tone, every historical allusion, biblical quote, sporting joke and pregnant pause – each has relentlessly been practiced and road-tested with a select focus group of trusted advisers.

It’s tempting to search for hints in his current speeches, and those he will make over the next few weeks and months, for some awareness that these are his last as Israel’s prime minister. That these are perhaps his final public addresses as a politician before he embarks on the next phase of his career: as a defendant against multiple charges of bribery, with his lawyers the ones making speeches on his behalf.

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It’s tempting – but largely pointless.

Benjamin Netanyahu's full AIPAC speech

Netanyahu’s lack of self-awareness, his self-centered sense of inevitability – which, among other things, makes him so certain he can continue defying Israel’s law enforcement and legal agencies – is also what prevents this excellent orator from ever delivering a truly historical speech. Without self-awareness, introspection and spontaneity, Netanyahu is fated to never deliver any such speech.

The speeches he will make next month – his last Holocaust Remembrance Day speech; the last speech he will make on Memorial Day; and the one he will make for Israel’s 70th anniversary – can all be legacy-defining speeches. But they won’t stand out, because as far as Netanyahu is concerned, every single speech he ever makes is for history. All are his legacy. All are pitch perfect and, therefore, none are extraordinary.

The same is true of his speech Tuesday at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington – likely the very last, of so many, to a rapturous American audience.

It was a Bibi classic, right down to the faux self-deprecation when he apologized for using a “terrible” sentence of jargon; the silly question to the audience of “Do you have bank accounts? You should”; the contrived informality as he strolled across the stage, and then the sudden somberness when, back at the podium, he intoned that Iran’s “Darkness is descending on our region” – almost certainly an echo of Sir Edward Grey’s “The lamps are going out all over Europe” remark at the outbreak of World War I.

It was such a classic of the Netanyahu genre that he could have made nearly the identical speech at any point in the last decade. Actually he has, so many times.

Listening to it, I almost wished I was one of the students in the hall – listening to a Netanyahu speech for the first time – to whom he addressed the obligatory opening joke, “Thank you for cutting class to be here.” For them it would have been an experience, a chance to see the old master go through his routine.

For everyone else, though, it was little more than a copy-paste job, right down to the backdrop of maps of countries Netanyahu has visited and global corporations with R&D centers in Israel. These are trotted out whenever a world leader or CEO visits him in Jerusalem. It was so measured, so by rote, that it even lasted exactly 30 minutes.

Trawling the speech for headlines is a waste of time. It was a checklist of Israel (and Netanyahu’s) greatest hits. Iron Dome? Check. Thanking President Trump for recognizing Israel’s capital? Check. Shared values deriving from the Bible? Check. Brave Israel Defense Forces soldiers (with obligatory photo of PM shaking the hand of female Ethiopian-Israeli soldier)? Check. Cybertech and desalination? Check. Inspecting cherry tomatoes with Israel’s great friend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Check. Check. Check.

The only inkling that Netanyahu is facing a heap of legal troubles and may not have had the same time to go through his speeches as usual was in the mismatching of historical metaphors. In a gesture of friendship to the poor downtrodden Iranian, he expressed the wish that “tomorrow” we will see a return of “the historic friendship” between our nations, just as it was back in the days of King Cyrus. But only Tuesday, at the White House, it was Trump in the role of a modern-day Cyrus.

But none of the adoring listeners were about to note the historical incongruity. How many of them were wondering if they were indeed listening to him for the last time? Perhaps this is what Netanyahu was subliminally messaging them, in his Bibi-bot way.

He refuses to acknowledge that this is his last time – and don’t you dare even think it. You know me. This is what I’m best at. I’m the Terminator and I’ll. Be. Back.