WASHINGTON – It started out promising, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s live address to the AIPAC Policy Conference here on Tuesday morning from the command and control bunker – “the pit” – under the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
AIPAC board chairwoman Lillian Pinkus introduced Netanyahu to the 18,000 attendees, saying he was coming to them live from the military headquarters in Tel Aviv, an introduction that added to the drama and the moment.
Netanyahu appeared larger than life on the more than a dozen large screens in the cavernous ballroom of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The crowd cheered enthusiastically. Here was the prime minister, who rushed back home to deal with a military crisis, talking to the conference directly, after landing back in Israel and speeding to a meeting with the IDF’s top brass.
Netanyahu started with a few introductory words about how, unfortunately, he could not be there in person, having had to return home to deal with the Hamas missile crisis. Then static set in on the line and the satellite feed became garbled. The crowd collectively groaned, and a loud oooohhhhh filled the massive room. A couple seconds later his voice was heard again, and then the video of him in the pit reappeared on the screen. But then again it was lost, and there was more static on the line. And so went his short address.
All that aptly summed up Netanyahu’s Hamas-missile shortened visit to Washington: This time, for the prime minister, things went neither as hoped nor as planned.
The dates for AIPAC policy conferences are set more than a year in advance, and Netanyahu and his staff were well aware of the dates when they looked at the calendar back in December to determine when it would be most advantageous for them to hold new elections.
It came as absolutely no surprise that for a couple of reasons the favored date was just two weeks after the AIPAC convention. First, because going to the conference just before the elections – as Netanyahu did before the 2015 elections – would give him the opportunity to give a major speech to an enthusiastic, warm and supportive audience. Footage of thousands and thousands of people on their feet giving him a raucous ovation is never bad in the midst of a campaign.
Secondly and even more importantly, this would give him a pretext to be in Washington and secure a meeting with US President Donald Trump. And in the final stretch before the elections, a meeting broadcast live with a supportive US president who was sure to give him a warm embrace is something any campaign manager could only dream of.
It was all shaping up so well when Netanyahu boarded his plane for Washington after midnight Saturday, even better than originally planned, because of the Trump tweet three days earlier announcing that the US would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. That was the proverbial icing on the cake. Netanyahu would get not only one, but two meetings, with Trump; not only would he bask in the warmth of the applause of 18,000 people at AIPAC, but Trump would formally declare US recognition of the Golan as part of Israel. And that is great for the electorate since, as the bumper sticker trumpets, “Ha’am im Hagolan” (The Nation is with the Golan).
And then Hamas fired a rocket at Moshav Mishmeret north of Tel Aviv, and all those plans and hopes and expectations went down the drain.
All of a sudden, what was highlighted in Washington was not Netanyahu’s strengths – his extremely close relationship with the administration, his skills as an English orator – but rather his weakness: Hamas.
Just like that, the focus of attention was not the Golan decision, but, rather, that Netanyahu has failed over the last decade to find a solution to Hamas and the Gaza conundrum.
As both prime minister and defense minister, and with a brand new chief of staff, Netanyahu had no real choice but to drop everything he was doing in Washington and race home to manage a crisis that led to the mobilization of some reserves and anxiety that the country may be on the verge of yet another major military campaign.
But by doing just that, Netanyahu shined the spotlight himself on Hamas’s ability to control the country’s itinerary. At its whim, hundreds of thousands of Israelis scurry to bomb shelters. At its whim, the prime minister ends what he himself defined as a very important diplomatic journey and returns home.
And, to make matters worse, his opponent Benny Gantz did speak at AIPAC, did get a rousing ovation, and did present himself well in his coming out appearance before the American public. He might have stumbled later that day in an interview in Hebrew with Channel 2, but at AIPAC in English he passed the test.
Netanyahu’s frustration at the turn of events came out as he boarded the plane at Andrews Air Force Base Monday evening, having spent some six hours after his meeting with Trump holed up in the Blair House managing Israel’s response to the crisis from afar.
“It took us 50 years to get this,” he said of Trump’s Golan decision, calling it historic and something that “will be remembered for generations.
“The fact that you didn’t cover this for more than a minute is something that we will hold you accountable for,” he chided the traveling press on the tarmac, before boarding the plane back to Israel. “But in terms of history, this is huge.”
That comment indicated that Netanyahu felt robbed. Here he had just secured a historic recognition from Trump, yet the media focus was on the Hamas missile. This was reminiscent of last May, when the US moved its embassy in a festive ceremony to Jerusalem, yet the television screens were split between covering that event and the violent Hamas riots on the Gaza border.
Then, too, Hamas spoiled the party.
ALTHOUGH THE brevity of Netanyahu’s Washington trip will probably not have done the premier that much electoral good – who remembers that Trump, when welcoming Netanyahu Monday in the White House, said he is “a very special man, doing a great job”? – the Golan proclamation is very significant.
And it is significant precisely for the reason Netanyahu spelled out, standing annoyed at Andrews before boarding his plane.
“This sets an important principle in international life: When you start aggressive wars, and you lose territory, don’t come and claim it afterward.”
Israel captured the strategic Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War.
The Golan, he said, is part of Israel. “We have historic foundations on the Golan Heights. When you put a shovel in the ground, you uncover magnificent synagogues that we are restoring there. The Golan is ours by historic right, the Golan is ours by the right of self-defense, and President Trump recognized this.”
A senior official sharpened that message on the plane ride home, saying that the US Golan recognition gave Israel strong backing in its confrontation with Iran over its military entrenchment in Syrian, and also because it set a precedent dismissing the notion that territories occupied during a defensive war must be relinquished.
The official’s message was clear: What is true of the Golan Heights should also be true in the West Bank.
And that, indeed, is a significant message. It also dovetails with the direction the US administration seems to be going regarding its peace plan, which may or may not be rolled out after the elections.
MANY SPEECHES – carefully crafted and perfectly delivered – were given by both American and Israeli officials at the AIPAC conference. One of the most important from a policy perspective, however, may have been the one delivered on the final morning by US Ambassador David Friedman.
In that speech he related to the long-awaited Trump peace plan and answered his own question as to why the Trump administration would want to get involved in trying to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the graveyard of the Mideast aspirations of so many American envoys and administrations that came before.
“How can we kick the can down the road and leave this to our successors?” he asked. “Sure, that would be easier, but is it right?
“Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the existential risk to Israel, if Judea and Samaria are overcome by terrorists in the manner that befell the Gaza Strip after the IDF withdrew from this territory?” he asked.
“Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he said, hinting that under the plan Israel will retain a permanent foothold in the territories.
And the diplomatic principle that will make Israel’s ability to keep permanent positions in the territories possible is the principle Washington set in recognizing Israel’s control over the Golan Heights: territory can be retained if won in a defensive war. And the Six Day War was nothing if not a defensive war.
That is a thunderous statement, and one Netanyahu wanted his countrymen to hear and recognize and celebrate on Monday, after his White House meeting. To his misfortune, however, Hamas stole that thunder.
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