WASHINGTON – Disputes between Israel and the US are “disagreements among family,” and while uncomfortable, they should not be blown out of proportion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday at the annual AIPAC conference, in a warm up to his main address before Congress the next day.
“You’re here to tell the world that reports of the demise of the Israeli-US relations is not only premature, they’re just wrong,” Netanyahu told the some 16,000 very supportive delegates in the hall. “You’re here to tell the world that our alliance is stronger than ever.”
Netanyahu made clear at the outset that he was not going to discuss the content of the speech to Congress, beyond saying that “never has so much been written about a speech that hasn’t been given.” Officials traveling with Netanyahu said that he will break new ground in his address to Congress.
Aware of the debate that the speech to Congress has triggered in the US, Netanyahu stressed that his speech was “not intended to show any disrespect to President [Barack] Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both.”
Netanyahu spoke immediately after US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power delivered a warm speech in which she repeated Obama’s pledge never to allow Iran get a nuclear weapon, saying he “deeply” appreciated all that Obama has done for Israel. The prime minister cited security cooperation, intelligence sharing, support at the UN, and “much more, some things that I, as prime minister of Israel, cannot even divulge to you because it remains in the realm of the confidences that are kept between an American president and an Israeli prime minister.”
This comment seemed intended to assuage administration concerns that Netanyahu may divulge details of the Iran negotiations that could harm the sensitive talks.
Saying that his speech to Congress was not meant to inject Israel into the American partisan debate, he continued to loud applause that “the last thing that anyone who cares about Israel, the last thing that I would want is for Israel to become a partisan issue. And I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that.”
The prime minister repeated what he has said on numerous occasions over the past few weeks, that the purpose of his speech was to speak about a deal with Iran that “could threaten the survival of Israel.”
Iran, which he said has its terrorist tentacles on five continents, has vowed to annihilate Israel, and if it develops nuclear weapons, “it would have the means to achieve that goal. We must not let that happen.”
Netanyahu, citing the history of the Jewish people who for 2,000 years were “stateless, defenseless, voiceless,” said that in the past “we were utterly powerless against our enemies who swore to destroy us. We suffered relentless persecution and horrific attacks. We could never speak on our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves.”
Then, to the loudest applause during his speech punctuated numerous times by ovations, he said, “The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to annihilate us, those days are over.”
Today, Netanyahu said, “we are no longer silent; today we have a voice.” Then, referring to his speech to Congress, he said, “Tomorrow, as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice.”
While Israel and the United States agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons, they disagree on the best way of preventing Iran from developing them, Netanyahu said.
Those differences, which he said are “only natural from time to time,” stem from differences in size, geography and military capability.
“The United States of America is a large country, one of the largest. Israel is a small country, one of the smallest,” he said.
“America lives in one of the world’s safest neighborhoods.
Israel lives in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood.
America is the strongest power in the world. Israel is strong, but it’s much more vulnerable.
American leaders worry about the security of their country.
Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Monday, one senior administration official said the president had no plans to respond directly to Netanyahu’s speech.
The official said the focus, instead, is on reaching a detail-oriented, technical solution to the nuclear issue. The administration has laid out concrete proposals to Tehran, the official asserted, speaking with a sense of umbrage at Netanyahu’s decision to criticize the effort without putting forth what the White House considers to be viable counter-proposals.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he doubts the president will watch Netanyahu’s address to Congress in its entirety.
Netanyahu’s visit is not harmful to the negotiations, Earnest said. But the onus is on Netanyahu, he continued, to lay out an alternative plan to what world powers have presented with Iran at the negotiating table.
He “has not laid out that strategy,” Earnest said. Asked whether the president watched Netanyahu’s Monday morning speech, he replied, “I don’t believe that he did.”
Citing other times in history when the US and Israel had strong disagreements, Netanyahu said that “despite occasional disagreements, the friendship between America and Israel grew stronger and stronger, decade after decade.”
Israel and the United States will continue to stand together, because they are more than friends, Netanyahu said. “We’re like a family. We’re practically mishpocha,” he continued, using the Yiddish pronunciation of the word.
“Now, disagreements in the family are always uncomfortable, but we must always remember that we are family.”
At the outset of his speech, Netanyahu cited two members of his inner circle who have come under withering criticism in recent weeks, his wife, Sara, and ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.
Amid speculation that Dermer may eventually pay with his job for the tension over the speech, which he has been accused of “engineering” or “cooking up,” Netanyahu said to Dermer that “I couldn’t be prouder to have you representing Israel in Washington.”
Dermer is “a man who knows how to take the heat,” the prime minister said.
And of his wife, Netanyahu said her “courage in the face of adversity is an inspiration to me,” adding that he is proud “to have you with me at my side always.” These words elicited applause and a standing ovation from some in the crowd.
Obama and Netanyahu are not expected to talk by phone while the premier is in the US.
He is scheduled to leave Tuesday afternoon.
In other AIPAC-related news, the director of the synagogue initiative, in an event closed to the press, announced Monday that for next year’s policy conference they intend to rent out a sports center, which can hold 20,000 people. This year there are 16,000 participants and in 2014, there were 14,000.