An overflow crowd at the Washington Convention Center turned out on Monday night to hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tell the gathering that Israel is America’s “indispensable ally” and that the bond between the two countries has never been stronger.
In a speech interrupted numerous times by applause – and also by the occasional heckler – Netanyahu spoke emotionally at times about the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States and he thanked America on behalf of the Israeli people and government for their support.
The speech was not a preview to the prime minister’s Tuesday address, which will take place before a joint session of Congress. However, he made some references to what he would be talking about. He will speak “the unvarnished truth” about the peace process as well as give his take on the “Arab Spring.” In that respect, Netanyahu will directly answer critics who say that Israel is to blame for all the problems of the Middle East. Pointing out that the millions in Arab countries who have taken to the streets do not do so in opposition to Israel, but rather for the simple reason that they desire freedom, the prime minister raised his voice when he said, “Israel is not about what’s wrong with the Middle East. Israel is about what’s right with the Middle East.” A standing ovation – one of several Netanyahu received – followed that statement.
Netanyahu knew he was among friends and appeared very comfortable talking about what America means to Israel and vice versa. His opening remarks made reference to the terrible storms to hit the Midwest and he offered his condolences to the dead on behalf of the people and government of Israel. Throughout the speech, he sought to cement the bonds of friendship by hearkening to our shared heritage and values.
He called to mind that common bond of liberty that unites the two peoples, stating that the words on the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials can find their echo in the Old Testament. He reminded the audience that Jews were proclaiming “all men are created equal” thousands of years ago when the world was inhabited by slave owning empires. “Israel is the cradle of our civilization, and the modern state of Israel was founded precisely on these eternal values,” said Netanyahu. He added that this civilization was born in “our eternal capital: The united city of Jerusalem” – an observation that received the loudest and longest standing ovation of the night.
The prime minister also pointed out that the Muslims and Christians who live in Israel enjoy complete religious freedom. Reason enough, he said, to give Israel complete control of the holy city since they could be trusted to allow freedom of worship for all.
The prime minister was frequently interrupted by hecklers. The effort seemed well-coordinated because as soon as one heckler was escorted from the premises, another would start up in a different part of the room. It’s a tactic that was refined during the Bush years by Code Pink and other radical Left groups. Netanyahu looked on with bemusement as the crowd would first drown out the heckler with applause, and then begin chanting “Bi-Bi, Bi-Bi” as the miscreant was led more or less voluntarily from the hall. Only once did he directly address the disturbances when he asked the audience if they thought this kind of protest could be held in Gaza. He received another standing ovation.
The prime minister had effusive praise for President Obama, calling him a strong friend of Israel and thanking him and the people of the United States for the security assistance we provide. Netanyahu received another standing ovation when he said that “Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines,” referencing President Obama’s belief that a peace deal must be based on the boundaries that were in place before the Six Day War. But there was no mention made of the disagreement, and Netanyahu appeared to go out of his way to speak kindly of the president.
Netanyahu saved his most passionate words for the prospects for peace with the Palestinians. “It’s time that we admitted another truth: This conflict has raged for nearly a century because the Palestinians refuse to end it. They refuse to accept the Jewish state.” That singular fact of existence dominates the peace process. All other issues including right of return, the status of Jerusalem, and territorial issues pale in comparison to the importance of the Palestinians acknowledging their partner in the process.
Also addressing the AIPAC Conference was opposition Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. While most of Israel backs Netanyahu’s position on borders, Livni warned that “inaction is not an option.” She said she decided to speak to the conference “not to ask what the U.S. can do for Israel, but what we can do together to confront the challenges.” Livni feels those challenges are to keep Israel democratic and Jewish while working toward a two state solution with the Palestinians.
The Kadima leader believes there are two main obstacles facing Israel right now: the Palestinian drive for statehood at the UN and the unity agreement that brought Hamas and Fatah together. But Livni thinks there is still time to change both:
September could be just another month of the year. I was glad to see the U.S. president taking an initiative to prevent the unilateral steps. Launching the negotiations process will postpone September and maybe even produce some success. We could rally the world to our fight against the terror and delegitimize Hamas.
Those are hopeful words directed at a world that is increasingly hostile to Israel and its prospects for survival.
But the night belonged to Benjamin Netanyahu. There is little doubt he will be more serious and less personable when he stands in front of the House and Senate on Tuesday. We will probably see more steel in his words, animated as they are by the constant recognition of the danger his people and his government are subject to on a daily basis. That will be some of the “unvarnished truth” he will try to impart, attempting to convince those who need convincing that, as he said during this evening of fellowship and good cheer, “[W]e can only make peace with the Palestinians if they’re prepared to make peace with the Jewish state.”