Analysis

State's Witness: Despite Domestic Woes Bibi Turns on the Charm at AIPAC

Israel's prime minister showed off 'Netanyahu unplugged' at the AIPAC confab on Tuesday, avoiding any real news and playing up his showmanship skills

People listen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at the Washington Convention Center in Washington on March 6, 2018.
Jose Luis Magana/AP

WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strode onto the AIPAC stage as if he owned it. Smiling widely, head held high, it was as if he didn’t have a care in the world, let alone multiple police investigations and a growing list of former confidants who have turned state’s evidence against him.

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Everything about his performance in front of more than 10,000 AIPAC activists (on the last day of the conference – many who hadn’t known Netanyahu would give his speech that day had already scheduled their lobbying sessions on Capitol Hill) sent what seemed a carefully calibrated and fine-tuned series of messages for the Israeli audience back home.

There seemed to be a deliberate effort to not make news in his speech. He offered little red meat for the audience or the press with which to concoct an exciting headline. It seemed what he wanted to be remembered for most was his upbeat mood and that his skill at speaking to foreign audiences far exceeds that of any other figure on the Israeli political scene, presumably to spur Israelis to think twice before getting rid of him.

A quick chat with audience members proved that Netanyahu has still “got it.” As they pulled on their coats after the speech, preparing to head to Congress, AIPAC activists buzzed with praise. The performance was “electric,” said one. “Inspiring,” gushed another, adding, “He was so relaxed and comfortable, and really spoke to us. It felt like ‘Bibi unplugged.’"

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The first and most important message was “business as usual.” Netanyahu worked hard to appear happy and relaxed, which he projected from the beginning by stepping away from the podium and moving closer to the audience, leaving behind the kind of thunderous and bombastic speechifying style he uses at the United Nations and other international forums.

Before he did it, he asked rhetorically if it was OK, and answered his own question with "hey what the heck, I'm the prime minister!" For the rest of the speech it was "TED talk Netanyahu," complete with PowerPoint, as he paced across the stage, gesturing and joking – asking the students in attendance if they had cut classes to be at AIPAC and offering to write them a note if they needed one.

The second message was a reminder that nobody knows how to sell Israel or plead its case like Benjamin Netanyahu. Though he opened with praise and thanks to the Trump administration (making sure to name-check the embattled Jared Kushner), the bulk of the 30-minute speech was a celebration of Startup Nation and a reminder of Israel’s military capabilities, with a nod to the U.S.' role in Israel’s safety and success, and a “glass half full” description of the progress Israel has made on the diplomatic front.

“Remember when people talked about Israel’s isolation? Pretty soon the countries that don't have relations with us – they’re going to be isolated,” he said triumphantly. “There are those who talk about boycotting Israel, we’ll boycott them!"

In the talk he framed as being about “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful,” he followed the good news items with the bad: Multiple dire warnings about Iran’s nuclear capabilities and activities on Israel's northern border, as well as scolding Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ financial support of terrorists, arming the AIPACers with the fodder they would need for their visits to Capitol Hill the same afternoon.

But the bad news was carefully censored. His description of Israel was the sanitized version that AIPAC likes to emphasize on his stage – strong, robust, flourishing and united. There was nary a mention of the numerous corruption scandals plaguing him and rocking the Israeli political landscape, an omission that was to be expected. But his speech failed to touch on any of the internal bad news issues roiling Israel at the moment – the religious-secular tensions that currently threaten to bring his governing coalition down; the raging controversy over the deportation of African asylum seekers – or the fact that Israel’s high-tech success story has yet to significantly address the wide gap between rich and poor. In an audience that contained thousands of Reform and Conservative Jews, Netanyahu chose not to raise the thorny issue of the Western Wall controversy.

And there was no talk of a vision for peace. The whole issue of peace with the Palestinians rated little more than a passing mention with the line, “President Trump has made it clear that he is committed to peace; I’ve made it clear that I am.” That was it – a notable decision at an AIPAC conference in which the organization’s top leaders made a point of stressing AIPAC’s commitment to the two-state solution.

While the fact that the AIPAC audience took to its feet to applaud him at multiple points in the speech will surely be interpreted back in Israel as direct support for Netanyahu personally, it really wasn’t. Any AIPAC audience with hands and feet will give a standing ovation to a sitting Israeli prime minister, particularly when they greet him.

He earned the applause with his skill and showmanship, reminding them that if he is brought down by the unfolding scandals in Israel, they will miss him when he is gone – a situation he is fighting with all his strength to prevent.