Analysis: PM at AIPAC - powerful but no new policy

Difference between a strong, passionate speech, and a speech setting out new new policy, is significant.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks to AIPAC 390 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks to AIPAC 390
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
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 – “Never Again.”
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.
This 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.
And 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.
But 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.
There 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.
Rather he 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 annihilation.
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 order.”
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 future.”
That theme is not new, nor is the policy principle it articulates: Israel reserves the right to defend itself by itself.
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.
But then, 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 longer.”
No one can afford to wait much longer, he intoned.
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.