Standing about 50 meters away from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he spoke Monday night in Washington DC at the annual AIPAC policy conference, I could not help but wonder: for what office was this white-haired man before me running? He is, after all, already the leader of the State of Israel. And I’m pretty sure the two U.S. Senate seats from the State of Pennsylvania (where he attended high school) are already filled. But despite not being able to figure out which vacancy beckoned Netanyahu, one thing was clear: this was a man speaking with a candidate’s confidence.
And if Netanyahu was the candidate, the AIPAC Gala Banquet was definitely his pep rally. At one point, the crowd actually began chanting, “Bibi! Bibi! Bibi!” That just thirty-six hours earlier, the American leader spoke at the same podium before American Jews but received only a mildly warm reception, was ironic … an irony drowned out by the synchronized applause that accompanied the Netanyahu chant.
Netanyahu, is after all, one of them. Or perhaps, as close to “one of them” as an Israeli leader can be. He sounds American, he quotes early US political icons with great ease, including Jefferson and Lincoln. He talked about the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and its replica in Jerusalem, referred to AIPAC leaders by their nicknames, and assured delegates he is not the bad guy.
As they exited the convention center, I asked some of the delegates for their reactions to his speech. One woman – an annual policy conference attendee from Michigan – said she got exactly what she expected from Netanyahu: “He came and he delivered,” she said. But she also said she was surprised to hear the Israeli leader directly address the comments delivered by President Obama, regarding the 1967 lines. (It should be noted that Senator Harry Reid – the highest ranking democrat in the U.S. Senate – spoke before Netanyahu and also Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, and in his speech Reid attempted to soften or even contradict Obama’s words in solidarity with Netanyahu.)
Two other delegates – young Jewish professionals from New Orleans, Louisiana – said they were “so excited to see Netanyahu speak live in-person” and that they “were blown away.” They admitted that this was their first time attending AIPAC and thus they could have been easily impressed. When asked about Obama, they simply replied: “I’ve seen him before.”
The message propagated by Netanyahu was the same as that of AIPAC: Togetherness. On the first day of the policy conference, the computer graphic on the screen behind the speakers had images of American and Israeli flags, only instead of the former having red stripes and the latter having blue, both had purple. For the color blind +972 readers out there, purple is the obvious palate fusion of the two. As if the subtle suggestion – that the two countries are one, or like one – was not obvious from the color scheme, one image showed the flags next to each other, with one of the American stripes actually continuing beyond the U.S. flag to double as the top stripe on the Israeli flag. Still don’t get it? Next to the flags in bold letters was the message: “The U.S. and Israel: Better Together.” It was then dotted by additional words: “stronger, safer, smarter.”
Netanyahu used his speech to further illustrate these points. He reminded the audience not just what the U.S. contributes to Israel, but also what Israel contributes to the U.S., including (apparently) the technology behind the plaster that (allegedly) saved the life of Jewish Arizona Congresswoman Gabriela Giffords. Again, standing ovation.
This was a crowd that loves the marriage between the U.S. and Israel. There were a few who chose to “speak now” instead of forever holding their peace. On five occasions, hecklers spread throughout dining tables of 10,000 attendees began shouting anti-Israel slogans. They were immediately silenced. One was wrestled to the ground by a number of security people (with plenty on hand), before being escorted out.
And then the speech was over; everyone left. Netanyahu thanked Americans for their support, for funding for the Iron Dome, for continued action against Iran, for standing by Israel. No ground-breaking policy, no “Bar Ilan-the-sequel,” no breaking news to report. Just a lovefest between American Jews and their apparent candidate for superhero.