WASHINGTON – Despite the rhetorical bells and whistles Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu employed during his speech late Monday night to the AIPAC Policy
Conference – and despite the passion and dramatic flourishes – he said nothing
new regarding Jerusalem’s policy toward Iran.
Doubtless many among the
13,000 people who attended the speech walked away with their heads held high,
after hearing the leader of the Jewish state declare – and obviously mean –
Lines such as “The Jewish state will not allow those who
seek our destruction to possess the means to achieve that goal,” and “The
purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish
future,” or “Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very
survival,” resonate strongly with many Jews with a historic memory.
is especially true to those who compare the situation of Israel, and indeed the
Jewish people, now – strong, independent, confident – to the situation before
and during the Holocaust – weak, stateless, completely dependent.
Netanyahu, with his soaring oratorical abilities, played on those chords,
especially when he waved an exchange of letters from the World Jewish Congress
to the War Department, demonstrating how the Jewish leaders were cruelly
rebuffed after pleading with the US government to bomb Auschwitz.
there was no new policy in Netanyahu’s speech. One could argue that the most
important policy statement Netanyahu made during his five-day trip to North
America, was not in the speech to AIPAC, nor in his public comments before his
meeting with US President Barack Obama, but rather in a short press conference
in Ottawa standing next to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
he laid down the three terms that Israel felt the Iranians needed to meet before
meriting engagement by the international community: the closure of the nuclear
facility at Qoms, the ending of uranium enrichment and the removal of all
uranium enriched beyond 3.5 percent.
At that press conference he
articulated new policy. At the AIPAC meeting he did not.
repeated – albeit powerfully – what he has being saying for weeks, months and
even years: Israel will defend itself, and will take action to prevent its
These are not new principles.
Granted, he framed
them in the context of the Holocaust, but even that was not new. In a speech in
Herzliya in 2007, when he was the head of the opposition, Netanyahu declared, “A
year ago, I said we are in 1938, and Iran is Germany. Well, it’s 1939
now. Hitler first embarked on a world conflict, and then attempted to
gain weapons of mass death. Ahmadinejad is going about it in the reverse
On Monday night he said, “My friends, 2012 is not
1944. The American government today is different. You heard it in
President Obama’s speech yesterday. But here’s my point: The Jewish people are
also different. Today we have a state of our own. And the purpose of the
Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish
That theme is not new, nor is the policy principle it
articulates: Israel reserves the right to defend itself by
Netanyahu gave no indication, however, that Israel has taken a
decision to act, or that it was indeed either close to a decision or action
itself. “Well, I’m not going to talk to you about what Israel will do or will
not do, I never talk about that,” he said, accurately, “but I do want to talk to
you about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. I want to explain why Iran must
never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.”
And he did, but that
discussion – too – was not new. All of Netanyahu’s comments about the threat
Iran poses are comments he has made numerous times before. What was somewhat
different, however, was the degree to which he tried to impress upon his
audience that the Iranian threat was not only to Israel, but to America as well.
His effort to tie the two countries’ fates together regarding Iran continued a
theme he began in the White House when he told Obama before the cameras that “we
are you, and you are us.”
By mentioning the Iranian-backed Hezbollah 1983
bombing of a marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 240 marines, by discussing
Iran’s responsibility for killing and maiming US soldiers in Afghanistan, by
reminding his audience of the Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador
to the US in a Washington restaurant, Netanyahu was saying Iran is a menace not
only to Israel, but to the US as well.
A nuclear Iran, he said, “could
put a nuclear device in a ship heading to any port or in a truck parked in any
city, anywhere in the world. I want you to think about what it would mean to
have nuclear weapons in the hands of those who lead millions of radicals who
chant ‘Death to America,’ and ‘Death to Israel.’” All of that was the framing of
the Iranian problem not only as an Israeli dilemma, but very much as a US one as
well. That too, is not new policy.
Those arguing that Netanyahu was
banging the war drums during that speech will point to his comment that a decade
of diplomacy and six years of sanctions have not deterred Iran.
choosing his words precisely, he said, “Israel has waited patiently for the
international community to resolve this issue. We’ve waited for diplomacy to
work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much
No one can afford to wait much longer, he
Pointedly, he did not say that Israel would not wait any longer.
And that is a key difference.
Had he said that Israel would not wait any
longer, then this speech would not only have been powerful oratory, but also a
declaration of new policy. It was not, and the difference between a passionate
speech that speaks strongly to its audience, and a speech setting out new
policy, is significant.