Analysis

Why Netanyahu Doesn't Need AIPAC Anymore

Whether or not this was the prime minister’s last speech to conference, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he now takes the pro-Israel lobby for granted

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking via video at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, March 26, 2019.
Jose Luis Magana,AP

“We don’t need AIPAC anymore,” Benjamin Netanyahu mused to one of his advisers a few months ago. “We have enough support in the United States from the evangelicals. I’d happily give up on AIPAC if we didn’t need to counteract J Street.”

Of course, Netanyahu didn’t say anything like this in his video address to the AIPAC Policy Conference on Tuesday. But ask yourselves why he didn’t make a quick impromptu drop-in after deciding to cut short his trip due to events in Gaza. He was in town anyway and there was still plenty of time before or after his meeting with President Donald Trump. It really wasn’t that important to him.

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Sometimes, a speech at AIPAC is only an excuse. Netanyahu, for one, certainly doesn’t need another AIPAC speech: He’s been making them for 35 years, since he became Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. But the lobby’s annual jamboree was a convenient pretext for him to fly to Washington and get the endorsement from Trump that he believes will help him in the election. He also couldn’t allow his rival, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, to have the stage to himself.

In the event, he had to make do with a video speech, broadcast live from the bowels of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, where he was trying to find a speedy way to end the latest exchange of fire with Hamas in Gaza without losing too much face.

It was an abbreviated version of his usual performance, parts of which were drowned out by static and obliterated by technical glitches. He called AIPAC a “great organization” and took a few digs (without specifically naming her) at freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has been at the center of controversy for attacking AIPAC using barely veiled anti-Semitic tropes. But you could see his heart wasn’t in it.

Netanyahu and AIPAC have a deal. They give him an excuse to come to Washington and a keynote slot. He gives them 30 minutes of the best political rhetoric money can buy. And love or loathe him, Bibi has few rivals in that department. He does it all: The personal gestures to the organization’s stalwarts; a couple of jokes for the younger delegates, one always with a sporting theme; a walk around the stage (Netanyahu was TED long before TED); and some choice biblical quotes.

And what Netanyahu always got in return was scenes of utter adulation, with thousands of delegates standing to give him ovation after ovation. Over the years it has built up the illusion that, rather than being the most divisive figure in the Jewish-American community, Netanyahu is loved and admired by all.

This illusion remains a potent electoral asset back home in Israel.

But the BB-AIPAC arrangement is wearing thin. Netanyahu has a much better platform to speak from in D.C. these days: By Trump’s side in the White House. And that is becoming a liability for the pro-Israel lobby. To remain viable over the coming years, AIPAC will need to retain the support it still has on the Democratic side and fight to regain that which it has lost from the party’s more progressive wing. A Trump-embracing Bibi is toxic in those sections of American politics.

Netanyahu doesn’t care. The first minutes of his video speech Tuesday were an unabashed Trump 2020 ad. At that point, some AIPAC professionals were no doubt relieved he wasn’t doing it live on stage, in the flesh, and that the satellite feed was so choppy.

In private conversations, they don’t deny that they can’t wait to see Netanyahu finally leave and make their lives easier. As long as he is the conference star, rebuilding bridges with the Democrats will be impossible. Many would have watched Benny Gantz’s rather wooden, and at times halting, speech on Monday and reflected that being superfluent in accentless English is overrated anyway.

There was some speculation before the conference that this might be the year in which Netanyahu would, for the first time, face some scattered booing as he took to the stage. Perhaps — but old habits die hard and he would still have got his standard ovations.

But this is now a relationship holding on only for old times’ sake. Netanyahu has no patience for the sensitivities of American Jews anymore. He finds them tiresome and believes that, within a generation, left-wing Jews will assimilate and disappear anyway.

If he wins the election on April 9 and somehow survives the indictments and holds onto power for another year, he may well be back at AIPAC in 2020. But there is the distinct possibility that, after 35 years, he has finally outstayed his welcome.

If Netanyahu never speaks at AIPAC again, there will be few regrets.