Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address Monday morning to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) seemed a curious addition to his visit, a kind of undercard bout before the main event. It turned out to be one of his best speeches ever, the perfect setup for his address to a special joint session of Congress on Tuesday. The 34 Democrats who are boycotting the address are likely feeling that they made the wrong decisions. Here are 5 reasons why.
1. “No disrespect.” Netanyahu was deferential to President Barack Obama from the outset–a wise move that defused some of the political tension around his speech. What made Netanyahu’s statements convincing–more convincing, say, than the preceding boilerplate from Samantha Power about support for Israel–was that Netanyahu said Obama had helped Israel in ways he could not describe publicly, for security reasons. He didn’t just thank Obama; he vouched for Obama.
2. A Map. Ruth Wisse, professor emeritus at Harvard and a frequent commentator on events in the Middle East, says that she never speaks publicly about Israel without a map handy, because most people need reminding of how small Israel is compared to the surrounding states. In this case, Netanyahu used a map showing Iran’s deployment of terrorists all over the world. It was a convincing way to highlight the ambitions of the Iranian regime–the key to the case against it.
3. History of bipartisan disagreement. While stressing that there is bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S., Bibi also pointed out that Israel had struggled through disagreements with administrations of both parties. The gesture was more than a sop to the nervous Democrats in the room, who might have needed a sympathetic talking point or two to keep them from wilting. It was a bold statement that Israel is prepared to do what it must to ensure its own security, regardless.
4. Highlighted Israeli vulnerability–and strength. Given Israel’s willingness to act independently, why would Bibi need to address Congress? Netanyahu explained, simply and concisely, that U.S. support is critical because Israel is a very small country. At the same time, he noted, Israel is worth having as an ally precisely because it is strong. In a few careful phrases, Bibi explained the pragmatic basis for U.S-Israel ties (as opposed to Obama’s view that it is all about the “donors“).
5. A great show. Netanyahu is always articulate, and the big AIPAC stage is always a major production, but he really did give one of his best performances ever. (In contrast, his speech last year, in which he tried a few jokes, was one of his less impressive addresses.) Viewers who had been led to expect an, “arrogant,” “destructive” foreign interloper saw instead a statesman with sincere love for the United States.
Hopefully, Bibi has another performance like that on deck.