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By ALAN ELSNER
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference was another rhetorical tour-de-force by this most silvered-tongued of Israeli leaders.
There were applause lines for almost everyone. Once again, Netanyahu promised to defend Israel against an Iranian nuclear threat and to be beholden to no other nation in his zeal to protect his people.
He attacked the boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions movement in withering terms. He extolled Israeli medical advances and water conservation achievements, highlighted Israel’s role in treating victims of the Syrian civil war and envisaged Israeli strategic and economic cooperation with Arab Gulf States.
Once again, Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state but also spoke in soaring terms about the benefits of peace and a two-state solution. In many ways, the speech was yet another virtuoso performance.
Netanyahu has always been a wonderful speaker. For many reporters, myself among them, our first contact with him came during the 1980s when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and delivered many stirring speeches in defense of his country.
Later, he was spokesman for the Israeli delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Few who saw them will forget his frequent TV interviews during the US war against Iraq that same year with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when he again expertly explained Israel’s position and perspectives. In short, Netanyahu has always been a great spokesman.
Netanyahu is comfortable with words and trusts words, maybe even a bit too much. Perhaps that is why he places such an emphasis on wringing out of the Palestinians an acknowledgment that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Such a statement will have great symbolic significance no doubt but words alone do not necessarily create new realities. Words remain words.
In Israel’s political history, the ability to deliver a great speech has not always equated with great political leadership. Menachem Begin was an electrifying speaker – and he rallied the nation in favor of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt which entailed evacuating Israeli settlements in Sinai. But he later misled the Israeli people about the aims of his 1982 invasion of Lebanon which turned into a bloody quagmire for Israeli forces and a tragic strategic disaster for the country.
By contrast, Yitzhak Rabin was a relatively poor orator. His delivery was wooden and monotonous and he searched, often in vain, for the memorable phrase. But he spoke with such conviction and such moral authority that people believed him, despite – or perhaps because of – his lack of fluency.
In the Book of Exodus, when God summons Moses at the burning bush to lead his people, Moses at first demurs, saying, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent … but I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.” God responds that Aaron can act as spokesman but that only Moses has the unique qualities to lead. You can always hire a spokesman but leadership carries different requirements, among them courage, conviction, vision and decisiveness.
This is the challenge that now confronts Netanyahu. We know he can speak – but can he lead? Fine words finely spoken are important and have their place – but the time is coming for Netanyahu to take action and to finally decide whether to accept the peace framework being put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry.
In a sense, almost everything Netanyahu says between now and taking that decision is beside the point. Only the decision itself counts and only the decision will be remembered. If he decides to move forward, and if President Abbas does the same, we will have a chance of ending this conflict. If he decides against it, Netanyahu will have to face the unpleasant consequences. Israel will become increasingly diplomatically isolated and the BDS movement will gather steam. No amount of words, however eloquent, will disguise those facts.
Netanyahu’s eloquence is a huge asset which will come into play once again once he commits to peace. He will need to use that ability to mobilize Israelis behind him and to counter the inevitable attacks against him that will come from the settler movement and those opposed to a two-state solution.
But those memorable speeches lie ahead. Right now, what counts are not words, words, words but deeds. Netanyahu must search his soul and make a decision. He must lead Israel toward peace. That will be his legacy and secure his place in Israel’s history. Otherwise, he will be remembered as a great purveyor of hot air.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications for J Street.
By JACOB KAMARAS
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel will fail, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.
“Beyond our traditional trading partners, countries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, these countries are flocking to Israel” wanting Israeli technology, Netanyahu said.
“The BDS boycott movement is not going to stop that, any more than the Arab movement could stop Israel from becoming a global technological power,” he said. “They are going to fail.”
“Israel’s best economic days are ahead of it, mark my words,” Netanyahu added.
BDS is “bad for peace” because it hardens the Palestinian position and “makes mutual compromise less likely,” said the prime minister. He noted that Israel is the only Middle East country that protects Christian worship, gay rights, and freedom of the press.
“The BDS movement is not about legitimate criticism, it’s about making Israel illegitimate,” he said. “It presents a distorted and twisted pictured of Israel to the naïve and the ignorant.”
“Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly how we treat any anti-Semite or bigot… The boycotters should be boycotted,” Netanyahu added.
On the Iran nuclear program, Netanyahu said the “soothing words” of Iranian leaders don’t “square with Iran’s aggressive actions,” such as building a heavy water reactor, which has no purpose in a peaceful nuclear program, or building intercontinental ballistic missiles, whose only purpose is to carry nuclear warheads.
Iran must be prevented not just from having a nuclear weapon, but also from having the capacity to make one, said Netanyahu.
“If we allow this outlaw terrorist state to enrich uranium, how can we seriously demand that any other country not enrich uranium?” he asked.
Only more pressure on Iran “will get them to abandon their nuclear weapons program,” Netanyahu said.
“The greater the pressure on Iran, and the more credible the threat of force on Iran, the smaller the chance that force will ever have to be used,” he said.
Peace with the Palestinians, meanwhile, would open up the possibility of establishing formal ties between Israel and many Arab countries, and the combination of Israeli innovation and gulf entrepreneurship “can catapult the entire region forward,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister called on the Palestinians to “stop denying history” and for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “recognize the Jewish state, and in doing so, you would be telling your people, the Palestinians, that while we might have a territorial dispute, the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own is beyond dispute.”
If a peace deal is reached, “It may take years, it may take decades, for this formal acceptance of Israel to filter down to all layers of Palestinian society,” meaning Israel needs long-term security arrangements on the ground to protect it, according to Netanyahu.
“I hope that the Palestinian leadership will stand with Israel and the United States on the right side of the moral divide, the side of peace, reconciliation, and hope,” he said.
Some in Israel thought a remark Secretary of State John Kerry made a while back was a signal that he supports boycotts of Israel. Not so, Kerry said in his speech to AIPAC. The economy of Israel must be protected. No boycott, he argued, is acceptable.
It could have been worse. Secretary of State John Kerry’s reception at AIPAC. There are many in the Jewish community who feel he’s, at best, naive about the prospect of Middle East peace. At worse, leaning toward the Palestinians and away from the Israelis. As it turned out, he was rewarded with some applause. And a short standing ovation.
President Obama says if it passes, he will veto it. Additional sanctions against Iran. At a time when delicate talks over Iran’s nuclear program are underway. But the Jewish lobbying group, AIPAC, is hoping it will pass anyway. And that Obama will change his mind.
It’s all in the timing, in AIPAC’s view. The lobbying group making its move as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to meet with Obama in Washington. Netanyahu will also be addressing the AIPAC national gathering during his DC trip.
From the second one arrives at the Washington Convention Center, the AIPAC spectacle is all-encompassing. From the anti-Israel demonstrators clustering around the entrance to the sparkling, multi-screen plenaries in the main hall, there is a both a sense of showmanship and a sense that this is, for two days, the only show in town.
Even so, the razzmatazz at this year’s AIPAC policy conference couldn’t quite mute the background murmurs about the organization’s declining influence. There was Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Defense Secretary, and there is the ongoing debate about the impact of sequestration on Israel’s defensive capabilities. When Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) complained that the Obama Administration still had not delivered advanced F-35 fighter aircraft to Israel, he inadvertently invited his audience to ponder, “All powerful Israel Lobby? What all powerful Israel Lobby?”
They aren’t serious about negotiating. That’s Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s message to AIPAC about Iran. Essentially saying that when Iran talks about negotiating about its nuclear weapons aspirations, it’s really just a delaying tactic.
Netanyahu suggested that the time is fast approaching when Iran will cross that imaginary line that will force action against the country. But, he said, that time has not yet arrived
During remarks before The America Israel Public Action Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference Monday, Vice President Joe Biden emphasized that the administration views military action against Iran as a distinct possibility if diplomacy fails.
But in the process of telling AIPAC how the US stands with Israel, he managed to suggest that he is the president and that Barack Obama is vice president.