The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netanyahu’s showmanship abroad won’t save him at home

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Before a friendly audience of more than 18,000 people in Washington on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an all-too-familiar speech. He bashed Iran, a rogue actor bringing “darkness ... on our region.” He extolled the tremendous advances of Israeli science and technology. And he lauded the cherished alliance between his country and the United States, particularly the close friendship that he shares with President Trump.

“It is because we are inspired by the same ideas, because we are animated by the same values that America and Israel have forged an eternal bond that can never ever be broken,” Netanyahu concluded, to rapturous applause. There are few places beyond the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential Washington lobbying group, where Netanyahu is more in his element. He received a hero's welcome and offered a father figure's oration.

“We love you, Bibi,” a woman in the crowd shouted at one point. Netanyahu stopped. “That's very kind of you,” he said. “I love you, too.”

“They had gathered because they care about Israel, because they want Israel to be safe, and because they want to feel good about Israel,” wrote David Horovitz, the founding editor of the Times of Israel, referring to the thousands in attendance. When that is the demand, there's no better seller than Netanyahu.

The problem for the Israeli leader is that there is a world beyond AIPAC. Later this week, he will go home, where the situation is far less agreeable. There Netanyahu faces the possibility of being indicted on charges of corruption and bribery. While he was abroad, news broke that a third former aide has agreed to cooperate with the police and turn over recordings of the prime minister and his wife. While his allies believe he may withstand the legal trouble, his critics are certainly hoping this was the last time he addresses AIPAC as the head of Israel's government.

If it was, Trump will not be happy. He gave Netanyahu a warm reception at the White House, perhaps empathizing with his counterpart's plight. Like Trump, Netanyahu has been quick to identify “witch hunts” against him and inveigh against supposed enemies in the media and state bureaucracy.

“The two leaders, who have formed a personal bond closer than any Trump has with other world leaders, gave no sign that the corruption allegations, which Netanyahu denies, were coloring their meeting,” my colleagues Ruth Eglash and Anne Gearan wrote. “Trump has a cloud over his own administration as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III investigates his aides and others as part of an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.”

Speaking at the 2018 AIPAC conference on March 6, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised "beautiful alliance" between the U.S. and Israel. (Video: Reuters)

Netanyahu's cuddly relationship with Trump shone through in the latter's decision last year to unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital. The move infuriated Palestinians as well as much of the international community, while sending the moribund peace process further into its death spiral. But despite all evidence to the contrary, Trump declared that peace is in sight.

“We’re working on it very hard,” he said, with Netanyahu at his side. “Look, it would be a great achievement even from a humanitarian standpoint. What better if we could make peace between Israel and the Palestinians? And I can tell you, we’re working very hard on doing that and I think we have a good chance.”

The contours of Trump's long-mooted plan remain utterly indistinct — even senior Israeli officials admitted to not knowing much about it. All signs point to an active disinterest in the two-state solution from both Netanyahu and the Trump administration. This may not be a problem for Netanyahu domestically, where the Israeli electorate has moved rightward and has few qualms with the status quo. But it's harmful in the long run to American Jewish support for Israel.

This year, the Pew Research Center published a new poll that showed partisan splits between Republicans and Democrats over Israel — as well as Netanyahu himself — at their highest level in nearly four decades. That is certainly exacerbated by the Israeli leader's enthusiastic support for Trump, a profoundly polarizing figure in the United States. But there are other issues at work, including ultra-Orthodox resistance to public pluralism in Israel and Netanyahu's widely decried plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers.

Above all there's the matter of what to do about the ongoing military occupation of the Palestinian territories. At a meeting on the sidelines of the AIPAC conference, influential ministers in Netanyahu's cabinet made it clear they have no interest in an independent Palestinian state — and they expect their interlocutors in the West to eventually live with that reality.

Naftali Bennett, a champion of Israeli settlers and a potential rival on Netanyahu's right, insisted neither the settlements nor control over large sections of the West Bank would be relinquished. “It’s never pleasant two weeks after,” Bennett said, according to one account, gesturing to how the West no longer challenges Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, “but after two months it fades away, and 20 years later and 40 years later it’s still ours. Forever.”

Such rhetoric infuriates not only Palestinians but left-leaning American Jews. “At a time when an ever greater number of Israeli experts have made clear that the absence of a viable diplomatic horizon for the Palestinians threatens Israel’s future, Netanyahu once again refused to back a two-state solution,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal Jewish American advocacy organization, said in an emailed statement. “Netanyahu’s refusal to back a two-state solution, policies of creeping annexation and support for settlement expansion are leading his country towards a one-state nightmare.”

But Netanyahu has other problems on his mind. “The prime minister did everything to show himself not merely inspiring and commanding, but irreplaceable,” Horovitz of the Times of Israel wrote. “But it’s not AIPAC that will determine his fate. As things stand, it’s not Israeli voters either. It’s Israel’s law enforcement authorities.”

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