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Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu did not mince words at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy meeting today. He began: “I bring you greetings from Jerusalem, the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, the Jewish state.”
The bulk of his speech was focused on Iran. As he described it: “I am here to draw a clear line . . . a line between life and death, right and wrong.” He spent a surprising amount of time on once again making the moral case for Israel – its democracy, its treatment of wounded Syrians, etc. – and the explication of the nature of the Iranian state. If the Obama administration is seeking to normalize relations with Iran, with the president claiming it will make rational decisions, Netanyahu strove to remind the crowd and more importantly those around the world that Iran is a unique state in its sponsorship of terrorism, its domestic repression and its desire to wipe Israel off the map.
He was most adamant about the terms of a final deal, perhaps a shift in emphasis from sanctions (tied up in the Senate) to the outcome of negotiations, which remains President Obama’s dilemma. The Israeli prime minister reiterated that “leaving Iran the capability to enrich uranium . . . [would] leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state.” And perhaps in an appeal to liberals, he warned that allowing Iran any enrichment would spell the end of nonproliferation. The “threshold” nuclear state in Netanyahu’s telling is the threshold of Israel’s destruction. Harkening back to the Holocaust, he intoned, “The Jewish people will never be brought to the brink of extinction again.”
Recognizing the pressure from the Obama administration, he dwelled at length on the peace process, reiterating, “I’m prepared to make an historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors.” And he gave a new rationale for Israel’s desire for a peace deal – the promise of improved and robust relations with Arab states. Hinting at the behind-the-scenes cooperation that already exists, Netanyahu said the promise of an “open” relationship with Arab states would lead to new cooperation and breakthroughs in energy, health and technology for the whole region. He was most pugnacious about a point one can imagine is taking center stage in the talks, a peacekeeping force to enforce the terms of a potential deal. He unequivocally ruled out an international force, saying the only ones who could be counted on were the members of the IDF.
What then followed were possibly the most extensive comments he has made in America about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. He vowed that it would fail. Moreover, he declared, “They should be opposed because they are bad for peace and because BDS is just plain wrong.” He spared no words in labeling the effort to single out Israel rather than its human-rights violating neighbors for special treatment as “the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism.” With a shout-out to Scarlett Johansson, he urged, “The boycotters should be boycotted!”
The crowd was effusive, as if they finally got to express three days of frustration, anger and disappointment with the administration’s handling of Iran and the “peace process.” These people have not given up on Iran sanctions, nor are they inclined to make excuses for the administration any longer. In that regard, the policy conference was a success.
AIPAC may need to readjust its tactics to more open opposition with the administration and with public campaigns that rally the voters to its side. If not more partisan, it must become more electorally savvy. The insistence on bipartisanship can’t allow the organization to descend to the lowest common denominator, which in this administration is lower than they ever imagined. If Congress is not always receptive, and if the White House is deaf to its pleas, the American people are susceptible to its message. And ultimately in a democracy, the people do matter.