They checked their gloves, all right — but
less to practice bipartisanship than to pummel the Obama administration with
bare knuckles. In the brawl between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran nuclear negotiations, AIPAC has joined
congressional Republicans in siding wholeheartedly with the Israeli hard-liner.
The rift with Obama is nothing new; four years
ago, AIPAC delegates were urged not to boo Obama when he spoke to the group
(most obeyed). But this situation is worse, because Netanyahu, by accepting
House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to
address Congress Tuesday — snubbing Obama, who wasn’t consulted — is
exploiting a partisan rift in American politics and driving a wedge through the
American Jewish community. And congressional Republicans, by giving Netanyahu
their pulpit 14 days before Israel’s elections, are brazenly taking sides in
that country’s politics. This all is likely to backfire by firming Democratic
resistance to more Iran sanctions — and, in the long run, by politicizing
The AIPAC delegates left no doubt where they stood as they listened to speeches
at the Washington convention center Monday morning by Netanyahu and by an Obama
administration representative, U.N.
Ambassador Samantha Power. The transcript will show that they applauded
Netanyahu 59 times in his 22-minute speech, compared with 34 times during
Power’s 30-minute address. But that doesn’t reflect the rapturous nature of
the reception for Netanyahu (who got an 80-second standing ovation, with
thousands of phones raised to take photos, on either end of his speech) and the
polite but tepid response to Power (who received a perfunctory 18 seconds).
“As a few of you may have heard, the prime
minister of Israel is in town,” Power said with a smile. There was laughter
— and then a wave of defiant applause swelled across the room. Power aimed for
the high ground, saying that the “U.S.-Israel partnership transcends
politics,” but only about half the crowd lumbered, slowly, to their feet at
this obligatory applause line, while others sat with arms folded.
Israel’s Netanyahu has ‘respect’
Thirty minutes later, Netanyahu gave his
version of the joke: “I also bring to you news that you may not have heard:
You see, I’ll be speaking in Congress tomorrow.” The delegates cheered. The
prime minister asserted that “my speech is not
intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office
that he holds” — but curiously, only about 1 in 10 stood to applaud.
“My speech is also not intended to inject
Israel into the American partisan debate,” Netanyahu continued, noting that
the alliance “has been championed by both parties and so it must remain.”
Roughly the same percentage stood to applaud this sentiment.
AIPAC delegates had to be warned to be nice to
Power. A slide flashed on the wall featured Casper the Friendly Ghost and the
message: “Don’t boo! Be Friendly.” Just before Power took the stage, the
announcer admonished attendees to “be sure to treat all of our speakers and
fellow delegates as guests in our home.”
Power read a too-long speech that included a couple of Hebrew words and made
all the usual references to the Holocaust, her trip to Israel and Jewish
culture. But no more than one-fifth of participants stood when she vowed that
“the United States of America will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon
— period.” And, in truth, her boasts about her achievements for Israel
(helping “secure for Israel permanent membership in what’s called the
Western European and Others Group”) were modest.
She was no match for Netanyahu, a head of
government and a gifted orator whose politics are more in tune with AIPAC’s.
They politely applauded when he acknowledged the presence of Dan Shapiro, the
U.S. ambassador to Israel, but they gave a huge ovation to Ron Dermer, the
Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who has been active in Republican politics.
They gave a boisterous standing ovation to his invocation of a “moral
obligation” to give his views on the Iran negotiations, declaring an end to
“the days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to
annihilate us.” Added Netanyahu: “Today we have a voice. And tomorrow . . .
I plan to use that voice.”
The Israeli leader put his spat with Obama in
the context of previous disagreements back to 1948, arguing that
“disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always
remember that we are family.”
That’s true. But when family members start
meddling in each other’s domestic affairs, they risk estrangement.