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The AIPAC Conference: Hillary Dissimulates, Bibi Shines

“Our commitment to Israel’s security is rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever,” Hillary Clinton told AIPAC on Monday night. The words were meant to reinforce the Obama administration’s support among American Jews, 80 percent of whom voted for Obama in 2008, and to signal that the worst days of the recent harsh U.S.-Israeli spat had passed. The administration is also aware that its temper tantrum at Israel over housing in Jerusalem has helped spark a wave of Palestinian violence, much of it centering on Jerusalem; the words were an effort to calm those winds, too.

But they were only words, and other key elements of Clinton’s address offered little reassurance for those aware of the dangers Israel faces. Regarding the cardinal one, Iran, she said:

We are now working with our partners in the United Nations on new Security Council sanctions. ... Our aim is not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite. It is taking time to produce these sanctions, and we believe that time is a worthwhile investment. ... But we will not compromise our commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring ... nuclear weapons.

With some Israeli intelligence reports saying Iranian nukes will go online within the next half-year, talk of “taking time” in the sluggish, fractious Security Council to produce “sanctions that bite” is detached from reality. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration is capable of seriously coping with an Iranian threat that Clinton characterized as “unacceptable to the United States.” The fact that, at such a critical moment, the administration went apoplectic over Israeli housing plans in Jerusalem does not foster optimism.

And after disposing of Iran in a few paragraphs, Clinton went on to devote over four times as much space to the Palestinian issue. She made de rigueur references to Palestinian incitement and to a “Hamas-controlled municipality glorify[ing] violence and renam[ing] a square after a terrorist who murdered innocent Israelis” -- at best a remarkable gaffe if not a deliberate fudge.

The renaming in question was done by Fatah officials of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

The administration continues to lionize Fatah as a key to peace despite its ongoing, systematic inculcation of hatred and delegitimization of Israel throughout the Palestinian population, particularly children.

Clinton continued:

We encourage [the Palestinian Authority] to ... ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.

Even in the best of cases, such “ingraining” would take time -- a good deal more time, even, than it takes to get another watered-down, toothless Security Council resolution on Iran. But none of this deterred Clinton from conveying to Israel the same grimly relentless message: that “peace with the Palestinians” is Israel’s prime responsibility, building homes in Jerusalem is a blow to peace, and the Obama administration will keep obsessively pushing and pressuring Israel toward that hallucinatory goal.

The leader of the junior partner in the relationship, Benjamin Netanyahu, taking the podium sometime after Clinton, appeared to stand firm on the focal point of the recent dispute. Saying that Jerusalem is “not a settlement” but rather “our capital,” and evoking Israel’s ancient, 4,000-year-old bond with the city, he pointed out:

My government has maintained the policies of all Israeli governments since 1967, including those led by Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, and Yitzhak Rabin. Today, nearly a quarter of a million Jews, almost half the city’s Jewish population, live in neighborhoods that are just beyond the 1949 armistice lines. All these neighborhoods are within a five-minute drive from the Knesset. They are an integral and inextricable part of modern Jerusalem.

As for the Palestinian issue, the stark difference between Netanyahu’s words and Clinton’s was the lack of the secretary of state’s obeisances to a spurious evenhandedness.

Netanyahu stressed that “my government has removed hundreds of roadblocks, barriers, and checkpoints in the West Bank ... help[ing] spur a fantastic economic boom there” and has “announced an unprecedented moratorium on new Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria.” He then asked: “What has the Palestinian Authority done for peace?” He also gave a brief, bitter catalog of the PA’s stonewalling of talks and ongoing anti-Israeli diplomatic and propaganda campaign.

On Iran, noting that its rulers see Israel as a “one-bomb country,” Netanyahu called its imminent nuclearization “an unprecedented threat to humanity” and said “Israel expects the international community to act swiftly and decisively to thwart this danger. But we will always reserve the right to defend ourselves.”

It is a note Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have sounded before, giving the benefit of the doubt to international efforts against Iran while also giving them a special prod. At this late date, is it still a credible message? The Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to dissuade Israel from acting against Iran, reportedly even including the denial of bunker-busting bombs, suggest the message is still taken seriously.

Again, as on Jerusalem and other issues, a crucial gap between the two allies: “sanctions that bite” versus survival.

Netanyahu devoted the last part of his speech to reaffirming Israel’s value as a U.S. ally after a recent high-profile statement by General Petraeus seemed to cast doubt on that notion. “For decades,” Netanyahu said, “Israel served as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. Today it is helping America stem the tide of militant Islam. ... We share intelligence and we cooperate in countless other ways that I am not at liberty to divulge. .... Militant Islam does not hate the West because of Israel. It hates Israel because of the West.”

Netanyahu’s speech was eloquent, nuanced, and strong; but he remains the junior partner. The noble tonalities of the two speeches do not conceal the differences over the crucial issues of Jerusalem, the Palestinians, and Iran. Netanyahu’s speech treaded a fine line between honoring Israel’s alliance with the U.S. while signaling that he has to put Israel’s interests first. He will have to live up to that in action and not just in rhetoric.