Late last night — the program scheduled for 7 p.m. began at 8:30 due to problems with getting 10,000 registered delegates through security — the AIPAC attendees finally heard the long awaited speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But before he spoke, there were preliminary statements by Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker John Boehner.
Reid spoke with ardor, passion, and strength making clear his profound commitment to the security and strength of Israel. His comments made me reflect on the importance of support for Israel in the Congress being bipartisan. While I may personally think, as I indicated earlier, that the Republicans are a better bet for the executive branch being supportive of Israel, an American policy based on protecting our national security and our major ally in the world has to have the support of both parties to succeed.
While I personally am opposed to Reid’s domestic policies, I applaud and support his passionate defense of Israel. (You can read his entire speech here.) Reid’s speech came in the context of the president’s comments days earlier to Benjamin Netanyahu, in which President Obama made clear that he was tilting towards an anti-Israeli policy. Unlike the president, Reid — representative of the majority of Democrats in the House and Senate — made it crystal clear that his party was opposed to the policy direction taken by his own president and party leader.
Reid first reiterated his party’s commitment to the Jewish state:
I stand with Israel, the Congress stands with Israel and America stands with Israel because the values that have cast our histories are one and the same. And our futures will be intertwined even more than our history has been. You know these values: Democracy, opportunity, justice. Strength, security and self-defense. Innovation. Peace. These values fasten the unbreakable bond between the United States and the State of Israel.
Referring to the flotilla episode, Reid noted:
While the whole world unfairly condemned Israel for defending herself in the flotilla incident, I didn’t stay silent. I spoke up. I worked with Democrats and Republicans alike to collect almost 90 Senators’ signatures on a letter defending Israel’s right to defend herself. We all know that if we were attacked in the same way, off our shores, the United States would have done nothing different.
And then, without mentioning Barack Obama’s name, Reid said:
The only way to achieve the delicate balance we seek between security and peace is through the hard work of negotiation. And I believe the parties that should lead those negotiations must be the parties at the center of this conflict — and no one else. The place where negotiating will happen must be the negotiating table — and nowhere else.
Those negotiations will not happen — and their terms will not be set — through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media. No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or about anything else. (my emphasis)
With that last powerful statement, to which the audience rose to its feet as one and gave Sen. Reid an ovation — the Democratic majority leader reprimanded his own president in a speech to Israel’s most fervent American supporters.
Next, Reid addressed the issue of Hamas, with which the Palestinian Authority has just signed an agreement to allow the terrorist group to join the West Bank government:
That means the Palestinians cannot bring to the negotiating table a terrorist organization that rejects Israel’s right to exist. Nowhere else in the world, at no other time, is one party expected to compromise with a partner who denies its very existence. A peace process can happen only when both sides seek peace. And two partners cannot build a bridge when one party refuses even to admit there is something on the other side of the span.
Hamas is a threat not only to Israel, it is a threat to the creation of a Palestinian state, a threat to the legitimacy of a new state and a threat to stability in the region. … [Israel] cannot be asked to agree to confines that would compromise its own security.
Moreover, Reid told the audience that he was opposed to the United States giving the PA funding as long as it included Hamas as a governing partner:
I’ll say this as clearly as I can: the United States of America will not give money to terrorists bent on the destruction of the State of Israel. If the Palestinian government insists on including Hamas, the United States will continue to insist that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, that it renounce violence, and that it honor the commitments made by prior Palestinian Authority governments.
Since Hamas of course will not do anything like this, Reid is in essence saying he knows full well that the peace process will not go on — despite the president’s invocation that it must. He concluded his powerful speech with these words:
America’s commitment to Israel is incorruptible. It is non-negotiable. And we will never leave her side.
In essence, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech was memorable because he is Israel’s democratically elected leader and its major face to the world. Netanyahu is a powerful speechmaker, a man who can hold his own with any of the greatest orators of our time. And in a period when Israel is threatened as it never has been before, and when an international campaign of delegitimization is under way, his very appearance in the United States has great symbolic meaning. But since he was scheduled to make his important speech later before both houses of Congress, the speech to AIPAC had to be of lesser importance.
Nevertheless, tension existed as protesters from various leftist groups, most likely via MoveOverAIPAC, managed to get in and tried to interrupt Netanyahu’s presentation. Six different times in different places in the grand ballroom of the D.C. Convention Center activists unveiled red flags and began to shout obscenities. They were quickly surrounded by audience members, Israeli security, and guards, and dragged out of the room.
How did they get in? One was standing right by in the press section. He was immaculately dressed in a black suit, so no one would suspect he was part of the bedraggled group that picketed outside. He had a press pass, which he easily could have acquired from a legitimate outfit, making it easy to pass the tough security. The prime minister, undoubtedly accustomed to such interruptions, quipped: “Do they allow protests in Gaza?” We all laughed, knowing full well that anyone who tried to protest Hamas would be quickly arrested and most likely even killed.
Netanyahu’s most important line of the short speech: “It’s time to stop blaming Israel for all the region’s problems.” Peace with the Palestinians is “a vital interest” to Israel, ” … but it is not a panacea for the endemic problems of the Middle East.” (The text can be read here.)
The line that got the most attention, however:
Tomorrow in Congress, I’ll describe what a peace between a Palestinian state and the Jewish State could look like. But I want to assure you of one thing. It must leave Israel with security. And therefore, Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines.
And defining the nature of Israeli democracy, he said that democracy is the key:
Democracy — real, genuine democracy. And by democracy, I don’t just mean elections. I mean freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, the rights for women, for gays, for minorities, for everyone. What the people of Israel want is for the people of the Middle East to have what you have in America, what we have in Israel — democracy. So it’s time to recognize this basic truth. Israel is not what’s wrong with the Middle East. Israel is what’s right about the Middle East.
As I type, the prime minister just said the very same words to Congress. I will blog later about the meaning of the speech to Congress.
Update: Netanyahu’s speech to Congress
I have little to add to the comments made by many others on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, which I watched in my hotel room before driving home. Jonathan S. Tobin, I think, has put it best: “Netanyahu’s gutsy decision to refuse to take the ambush planned by the White House lying down was thought impertinent by many observers but it was the right decision. Rather than being cowed by the administration’s pressure play, Netanyahu’s assertion of Israel’s rights and security illustrated something that his country’s critics don’t seem to understand: the American people back Israel.”
You can read the entire speech yourself. The Israeli P.M. made it clear that he accepts mutual recognition of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side by side. The Palestinian state has to be independent and viable. But it must be, he warned, fully demilitarized, with an Israeli military presence on the banks of the Jordan River.
Netanyahu also emphasized that the settlement blocs that were large and already settled would have to be part of Israel proper, as well as other areas critical to its survival. He acknowledged, however, that some settlements will be outside of Israel’s borders. But, his main point as he said many times, is that Israel is not the nation that stands in the way of peace, but rather, the Palestinian people are. Israel is ready to recognize a Palestinian state; the Palestinians to this day have not made clear their willingness to support or recognize the Jewish state.
Finally, he made it clear that there will be no “right of return.” Israel will recognize a large Palestinian state, but that new state must be the area in which refugees will be able to return. And Jerusalem must be Israel’s united and sovereign capital.
The speech was, therefore, a complete triumph for Netanyahu. The Prime Minister gave Barack Obama a message: Both houses of Congress, recognizing the people of the United States of America, firmly support Israel and its just demands. The President, now, must back down and get in line with the people’s representatives, including the leaders of his own political party. Since the now infamous White House meeting, the President has been outfoxed and outmaneuvered by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Update : Netanyahu’s speech to Congress must be anchored on security’ at the Tatler.