Last night at AIPAC Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu delighted and engaged the crowd, while Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) raised some eyebrows. Reid made it perfectly clear, as House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) did on Sunday, that he wanted nothing to do with President Obama’s formulation of U.S. policy toward Israel.
Reid, looking more rickety than usual, isn’t a fabulous public speaker. But what he said pleased the crowd immensely. He was emphatic that any peace deal will be decided “by the parties at the center of the conflict and nowhere else.” If that weren’t direct enough, he continued, “No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or anything else.” Roaring ovation. And he assured the crowd, “The United States will not give money to terrorists bent on the destruction of the state of Israel.” Imagine if Obama had said all that — but then he’d have to believe all that and that the peace process is best served when America’s support for Israel is undiluted.
Netanyahu is quite a presence in a room. And the room last night was brimming with affection and enthusiasm. Let there be no doubt: If Obama’s reception was polite, Bibi’s was effusive. Three times protesters interrupted and three times the crowd rose to its feet to give Bibi an ovation (once with synchronized clapping). The message: We have your back. And Bibi showed he hasn’t lost his wit. After one outburst, he smiled and remarked, “Do you think they have these protests in Gaza?”
Bibi let it be known that the main event would be today, before a joint session of Congress:
My friends, the American people’s support for Israel is reflected in my invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress tomorrow. I will talk about the great convulsion taking place in the Middle East — I will talk about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.
I will also outline a vision for a secure Israeli-Palestinian peace. I will speak the unvarnished truth. Now, more than ever, what we need is clarity. Events in our region are finally opening people’s eyes to a simple truth. The problems of the region are not rooted in Israel. The remarkable scenes we are witnessing in town squares across the Middle East and North Africa are occurring for a simple reason. People want freedom.
In other words, he is going to demonstrate that the problem is not and never has been Israel. The reason there is no peace, Bibi explained, is simple: “This conflict has raged for nearly a century because the Palestinians refuse to end it. They refuse to accept the Jewish state. This is what this conflict has always been about. There are many issues that must be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians. We can and must resolve them. But I repeat: We can only make peace with the Palestinians if they are prepared to make peace with the Jewish state.”
Bibi also hit the “must-have” issues for Israel. “Israel is the cradle of our common civilization, crucible of our moral ideals. . . . This is why Israel’s more than 1 million Muslim citizens enjoy full democratic rights. This is why the only place in the Middle East where Christians are completely free to practice their faith is in the democratic state of Israel. And this is why only Israel can be trusted to ensure freedom for all faiths in our eternal capital, the united city of Jerusalem.”
In addition to Jerusalem, he made certain all understood, in case anyone missed it over the last few days, that no deal can leave Israel with “indefensible” borders. “Israel cannot return to the 1967 lines,” Bibi said as the crowd gave him a huge ovation.
Throughout the speech Bibi spoke about the fundamental connection between the two countries — a common love of liberty. There was some classic Bibi’s aphorisms, such as: “Israel is not what’s wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what’s right about the Middle East.” And “It is time to stop blaming Israel for all the region’s problems.”
But more than the words spoken was the unmistakable affection between Bibi and the crowd. He began with condolences and expressions of support for the victims of the floods and tornadoes that have struck the Midwest. The crowd repeatedly jumped to its feet when he described the more than 60 years of cooperation between the two countries. This is how the U.S.-Israeli relationship is supposed to work. It’s based on common values, affection, history and trust. It is good for both sides to understand that the relationship supersedes any single president, no matter how cloddish his policy or unsympathetic he might be to the Jewish state. That mutual admiration society includes members of both American political parties.
The odd man out is Obama. But even he too had to backtrack on Sunday (albeit dishonestly) to claim he didn’t really mean to insist on the 1967 borders with land swaps; he meant the parties would decide these things, he assured the assembled.
But in a real sense Obama is not only out of step but out of ammunition. There IS no peace process until the Palestinian unity government falls apart. So with whom is he going to insist Israel negotiate? And let’s not forget Obama left no doubt that he’s opposed to unilateral recognition of the Palestinian state. Before Congress today Bibi is going to bat the ball back (set out the essential terms for peace) in the court jointly occupied by Obama and the Palestinians. After Bibi’s speech the question will be: So what are Obama and his Palestinian clients going to do now?